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Dr. Michael Dixon: Innovative Teaching

August 23, 2012

Dr. Michael Dixon has one of the tougher jobs in the ASU Biology Department—teaching students who are not biology majors and are only taking his class to fulfill their basic degree requirements.

But rather than treat those students like second-class citizens not worthy of his best efforts, Dixon employs every “trick” he can think of to make his classes more interesting and pertinent while still imparting the needed information. 

“A big part of being successful with non-major students is that you have to help motivate them,” Dixon said. “You have to help them understand why the information is relevant to their lives, either now or in the future. So, I try to not just stick to scientific theory, but to explain how it can make a difference in their lives.” 

His inventive motivation techniques include starting classes with videos or radio news stories on current interesting topics gleaned from sources such as National Public Radio and BBC. He even conceived his own card game called “Evolution Poker,” and often uses props like a guitar to illustrate different scientific concepts. 

“It’s all about trying to tie in a topic that I need to talk about with something that the students know or understand or are curious about,” he said. 

Those innovative teaching methods have also drawn the attention of Dixon’s colleagues, and this spring he was awarded the 2012 ASU President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching by the ASU Faculty Senate. 

“I enjoy teaching, and I have this job because I want to teach…It’s all about trying to tie in a topic that I need to talk about with something that the students know or understand or are curious about.”

Dr. Michael Dixon

“I enjoy teaching, and I have this job because I want to teach,” Dixon said. “I never wanted a job at a big, high-powered university where the emphasis is on research and teaching is secondary. So, it’s always a great feeling to be recognized for something you enjoy doing. If it is important to you, you want to do a good job at it, and it’s nice for other people to recognize that you’re doing a good job.” 

Another job Dixon hopes to excel at is his new position as curator of the Collection of Reptiles and Amphibians in the Angelo State Natural History Collections. In that role, he oversees the more than 14,000 amphibian and reptile specimens housed in that particular collection.

“The whole time I had been at ASU, my emphasis was on teaching,” Dixon said. “So, this has been an opportunity to rediscover what was part of the original passion that brought me into this field. Taking on this new responsibility is absolutely work, but it’s also fun. It’s a joy to be able to go back and reconnect.” 

What Dixon is reconnecting with is his love of all things slimy and squirmy that he first discovered during his younger years in the Boy Scouts. 

“In my mid-teens,” Dixon said, “I realized that there were actually books available, so that if I didn’t know something I could look at a book and understand, and then share it with other people. I liked that whole process of the learning and then the teaching.” 

“For whatever reason, snakes really caught my fancy,” he added. “I also had a baby alligator for awhile in an aquarium that I sometimes moved to the bathtub. My parents were very tolerant, and that is how I got my start in biology.” 

In addition to his non-major students, Dixon does have some students who are genuinely interested in getting their own starts in biology. This summer he took a group of those students on a study abroad trip to Costa Rica along with fellow biology professor Dr. Robert Dowler.

“We were able to take the students into the mountains, agricultural areas, and the Caribbean and Pacific coasts,” Dixon said. “We also ventured into Panama to visit a coral reef and snorkel to see some of the marine ecology. With snakes, crocodiles, parrots, monkeys and all those colorful tropical animals that everyone grows up learning about, to be able to watch them in the wild is a lifetime experience for many biology students.” 

Outside of his biology duties, Dixon enjoys all manner of outdoor activities and is a longtime scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 363. He is also helping start a local co-ed Explorers post for 14–21 year olds.

“It’s all about helping them learn about careers in the theater, mass media and communication fields,” Dixon said. “It is something that my daughter is very interested in, so I’m helping make this opportunity available so she and other people like her have something to do to help their career goals.” 

Dixon is married to Dr. Loren Ammerman, who is also an ASU biology professor, and they have two kids. Their son, James, is an Eagle Scout and former ASU student. Their daughter, Leanne, is a sophomore at San Angelo Central High School.

At a Glance

  • Title
    Assistant Professor of Biology
    Curator, Reptiles and Amphibians Collection

    Education
    Ph.D., University of Texas
    B.A. Miami University (Ohio)

    Teaching Areas
    Human Biology
    Man and the Environment

    Award
    2012 President’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Teaching 

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