Mary Schwanke
Professor of Biology

Ph.D., University of Rhode Island
M.S., University of Rhode Island

In the Lab: Engaging Students — Setting High Academic Expectations

Mary believes that having a laboratory sets the pace and tone of the entire course and science labs are often the most important part of the course. Because of this, the connection between lecture and lab is critical. All of her Biology classes shift from the traditional lecture hall to smaller lab settings where students work in even smaller teams to explore and present new concepts.

To learn the skills and techniques actual scientists use, Mary requires her students in General Physiology to set up their own lab equipment. This may seem like a simple notion, but by having her students do this she pushes the students to think about what equipment they will need — and why. It also helps students become much more comfortable and confident with laboratory equipment.

This concept is also important because some of Mary’s students are preparing to be biology teachers and will need to be comfortable and capable of setting up labs in their future classroom settings.

In the Classroom: Putting the Lab Experience Into a Broader Context

In the classroom, Mary Schwanke pushes students to actively grasp information, to get them to be engaged learners rather than just listen to her talk and spit back what they heard in a lecture. She looks to see what her students already know — either from science classes they took in high school or other science classes they took at the University of Maine at Farmington — and then builds upon that framework of knowledge, something called “concept mapping.” In doing this, Mary feels students see commonalities between what they have already studied and new concepts and ideas.

Mary frequently incorporates multimedia images and video clips into her Biology lectures and presentations. She also uses “the questioning model” to encourage her students to not only become engaged listeners, but engaged questioners — which is the essence of being a scientist: one who questions.

In presenting scientific facts, Mary shows how the facts were discovered and what led to the discoveries — showing students that science is a dynamic process and that facts are built upon a chain of previously discovered facts.

She also demonstrates to students just how much the science community still doesn’t know. Mary does this because she realizes some of her students will go on to become researchers and that they should remember there is still a vast world on unknown puzzles in the world of science, even today.

Outside the Classroom: Innovation and Excitement — Putting Theory into Practice

Mary requires her Biology students to actively present their work — both in writing and orally. She also encourages them to prepare some assignments in their own words and in their own formats, rather than in formats that resemble the scientific writing they may find in textbooks, for instance writing a letter to a family member, developing a classroom lesson plan, creating a children’s story, writing a poem or performing a song on key topics of the lesson.

Indeed, she wants students to write for themselves, rather than for the professor. She believes this method helps students figure out quickly where they’re fuzzy on the material and it forces them to think more deeply about the material.

Mary feels so much of science — be it in an elementary school classroom, in a high school classroom, in graduate school, or in a research setting — is about not only doing and understanding the research but in communicating the information to others. Because of this, she requires her students to research topics outside of class and then prepare formal presentations to be given to their peers in class or at the annual UMF Symposium.

A True Academic — Areas of Special Interest

Mary Schwanke has been involved in biomedical research, and this keen interest helps her students understand there is still a great deal the science and medical communities do not know and that exploring the unknown is at the very heart of science. In fact, her last two sabbaticals involved collaborating with the University of New England on the effects of diabetes on the heart.

Mary has also been heavily involved in improving the teaching of mathematics and science. She has been part of a small group in Maine to receive a National Science Foundation grant to recruit more future math and science teachers and to improve their college learning experiences in these subjects.

The project prompted Mary to think of ways to model good teaching techniques in her classrooms and labs and to demonstrate those cutting-edge teaching methods to those students of hers who will become science teachers: new teaching methods and new science methods being integrated.

She has found that for education majors, particularly those with a science concentration, this is a strong benefit and these students often can incorporate the scientific research model to their non-science classes as well.

Respected in the Field — Noteworthy Accomplishments

Mary was instrumental in the University of Maine at Farmington receiving a prestigious $4 million National Science Foundation grant (along with UMaine and USM) to improve teaching mathematics and science. This project has led to a number of professional presentations, most recently one delivered at the National Science Teachers Association conference, entitled: “Teaching with Technology: Encouraging Students to Engage in Study Outside the Classroom.”

In addition, Mary’s work is published in a number of scientific journals, including her most recent article which she co-authored in the journal Diabetologia, “Cardiomycyte dysfunction in insulin-resistant rats: a female advantage.”

Outside of Academia — Personal Interests and Activities

Outside of her busy academic life, Mary loves to cross-country ski, mostly early in the mornings on the trails in Maine. In the summertime, she enjoys sailing the coast of Maine on her 38-foot Cape George cutter.

Mary also enjoys traveling: France, Scandinavia, Belgium, and Germany, as well as Australia, and the Bahamas. She is also an avid painter, focusing on landscapes in both watercolors and oils.