Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sattler brothers: Biology for God’s glory

Biology brothers — Professors Dr. Paul and Gene Sattler allow their Christian faith to color the way they teach students. Photo credit: Ruth Bibby.

Some students complain that their classes are not engaging enough or that they should be more interactive. Toledo, Ohio natives Dr. Paul Sattler and his brother Dr. Gene Sattler work hard to make their classes anything but boring.

Both of them love being outside and learning about animals. Both have the same quiet, intelligent way of speaking and reverence for the natural world. Both are professors in the Biology Department of Liberty University. Both converted to Evangelical Christianity late in life, when they determined it was the only logical explanation for the complexity of the environment that they studied. However, the two men also have differing interests.

Paul Sattler, who is the oldest by nine years, explained the primary difference between himself and his brother.

“He looks up. I look down,” Paul Sattler said. “Between the two of us, we catch pretty much everything that goes on.”
While Paul Sattler teaches and studies primarily fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, his brother focuses on birds.

“I think amphibians and reptiles are the most beautiful, colorful creatures,” Paul Sattler said. “I call them God’s jewels.”

Paul Sattler has been teaching at Liberty since 1985 and was chairman of the Biology Department for 20 years until he recently stepped down.

He, like his younger brother, began his undergraduate studies at the University of Toledo and studied at several other schools, working up to the doctoral level. His doctoral work was done in Texas under a leopard frog specialist named John Meacham.

“Almost all kids are interested in reptiles and amphibians, I just never had to grow up,” Paul Sattler said of his fascination with slimy, scaly animals.

During his studies, Paul Sattler’s faith in the Catholic Church was shaken and he became an agnostic. Then, under the influence of the woman who is now his wife, he became a Protestant. It was after this conversion that Paul Sattler determined to dedicate his life to investing in Christian students.

“I’ve got a passion to hold up a magnifying glass on nature and let everyone else see how neat it is and through that then, the love that God has for us,” Paul Sattler said.

His brother, who also converted late in life, is driven by the same passion but holds his magnifying glass to a different group of God’s creatures — birds.

“(Gene Sattler) is not a bird watcher, he’s a birder and there is a difference,” former student Kelsey Huff said. “A bird watcher is someone who casually looks out his window at birds and might have binoculars, might not, but if you’re a birder, you’re very dedicated, very hardcore. You can close your eyes and tell what kind of bird it is just by hearing it. He could hear 10 different bird calls at the same time and say what all he heard, not even looking at them.”

Gene Sattler is president of the Lynchburg Bird Club. The club has about 175 members, bird counting field trips and monthly meetings. He counts migrating hawks each September, bands the rare northern saw-whet owls and teaches several biology classes at Liberty, including animal behavior.

“The more you study (biology), the more you see that it all glorifies God,” Gene Sattler said. “I passionately try to emphasize that.”

Huff had Gene Sattler for animal behavior and Paul Sattler for vertebrate natural history.

“They’re both very professional. They know their stuff,” Huff said. “I feel like they’re teaching us because they’re very passionate, they want to share their information.”

The two brothers approach their work as a way to invest knowledge and minister to Christian students.

“I think biology majors have a better appreciation of God than a lot of other majors because we see closer up the handiwork of God in the created universe,” Paul Sattler said.

Both men also want to cultivate an appreciation for the beauty and novelty of creation and a desire to study it further within their students. They do this by incorporating creative and interactive teaching mechanisms into their classes. Oftentimes labs are not held in the classroom.

“I try to get as many of the labs scheduled outside as possible,” Gene Sattler said.

For one outdoor lab, Gene Sattler takes his students to Camp Hydaway in the evening where they call in a screech owl.

“It gives the students the opportunity to see an owl and to hear it and we talk a lot about aspects of territoriality and their vocalizations,” Gene Sattler said.

In another lab, he takes his students into a wooded marshy area at dusk to observe the mating call of the American woodcock. The bird’s upward corkscrew flying pattern climaxing in a dramatic nose-dive makes its mating ritual especially unusual.

”People aren’t used to being out in the outdoors at night that much and they get sort of intimidated, but it exposes them to something they’ve never seen and really unusual behavior and then all the sights and sounds out there,” Gene Sattler said.

The class also visited a bald eagle’s nest. The nest is one of only two known bald eagle’s nests in the Lynchburg area, and he learned of it through the Lynchburg Bird Club.

He also has one lab where students act out animal behaviors by teaming up to go through the lab, sifting through cups of pinto beans and jellybeans to find the best foods and bring them back to their desks with spoons.

The point of the lab was to illustrate methods animals use to find food for survival and keep their rate of retrieval high.

Students learn well and respond positively to the Sattlers’ creativity and their encouragement of participation.

“I felt like that was fun, but it was practical cause it got the point across,” Huff said.

This semester he had a new lab for his students. They went to a nearby horse farm, pasturing about 50 horses, where they learned from the owner about domesticated animals.

Gene Sattler gathers his lab ideas from pouring through ideas in textbooks and his past experience as a naturalist in a metropolitan park district and as a zoo keeper, but the horse farm idea came to him via “the old serendipity.”

“My wife and I went out to this old bed and breakfast last summer, got talking a number of times with the owners about their horses and just saw the potential,” Gene Sattler said.

He also takes the students to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and is hoping to bring in speakers to give the students different perspectives on creation.

Gene Sattler works hard to make sure students have every opportunity to learn well and enjoyably in his classes.

“I’m always looking for ideas out there, and I’ve taught the course now for several years and every year I’m doing a little different mix of labs and seeing what works well,” Gene Sattler said.

His brother’s vertebrate natural history is also hands-on. A major project of the course is a display of animals that each student has caught or found. According to Huff, who took the course as a six-week summer intensive her sophomore year, most students display about 40 animals.

“It was a very memorable class,” Huff said. “I tell everyone to take it.”

When covering the fish unit, students take a gasoline-motored electro-shocker to a nearby stream where they stun and catch different species of fish. For the mammals unit, students had to learn to stuff their choice of mammal, most of which are road kill.

Huff stuffed a squirrel. She had to pull off its skin, make a mold of its body, sew its mouth shut and blow-dry its fur.
“I have never in my life had to blow-dry squirrel hair before,” Huff said.

Students are bound to leave the class with some crazy stories about keeping garbage bags in their cars to collect road kill, catching snakes with their bare hands and the meticulous method of skinning a rodent’s tail. However, Paul Sattler remembers one story that is marked in his memory as the very best. He calls it “The Great Coyote Caper.”

A student from the Paul Sattler’s vertebrate natural history class in the early ‘90s worked for the state department of game and inland fisheries over the summer in a state out West where there was a coyote control program.

At work he came across a freezer of dead coyotes and asked if he could have them to skin and donate to Liberty’s natural history collection. The state approved his wish, so the student skinned the animals, collected the skulls, took out the stomachs and strung the carcasses out on Liberty Mountain to decompose and dry out.

One day when Paul Sattler was listening to his radio, he heard of a satanic witch cult on Liberty Mountain that was sacrificing mutilated, decapitated dogs with their hearts cut out. He immediately linked the “cult” to his eager naturalist student.

Since there was no real foul play, no one got into any trouble with the state. However, by the end of the incident, the coyote bodies were in a landfill and Paul Sattler spoke with channel 7, channel 10, PETA, multiple radio stations and the Health Department.

“We never got them back, so we have the skulls (and pelts) but we don’t have anything else,” Paul Sattler said.

Next spring, the Sattler brothers will be joining up to co-teach the vertebrate natural history course.

“Vertebrate natural history that my brother has always taught hasn’t included birds,” Gene Sattler said. “Next year we’re going to incorporate a little unit on birds and so I’m going to be team teaching that. It’s sort of a new course.”

Students looking for an interactive approach to learning about God’s creation can look for the new course this fall.

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