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Faculty expertise central to Grandparents University success

July 17, 2008

Before strip malls and subdivisions cropped up around Madison, University of Wisconsin–Madison students often earned extra money in the summer by plucking fat, green worms from tobacco plants in nearby Sun Prairie.

But this week, some alumni grandparents will have the opportunity to introduce their grandchildren to the Manduca, or tomato hornworm, in the popular entomology major at Grandparents University (GPU), which will kick off its eighth year today (July 17).

“It’s a pest around here, and as soon as a grandparent sees it, he’ll say ‘Oh, I used to go out and pick those by the buckets, what are you doing growing those things?'” explains Walt Goodman, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology. “But you can do a lot of biochemistry on them, and there’s more blood in a tomato hornworm than there is in a rat.”

UW-Madison faculty like Goodman give up a few days of their summer vacation to teach in this unique program, which invites grandparents and their grandchildren to experience two days of learning in a college setting, even earning a “diploma” upon graduation.

The award-winning annual conference is co-hosted by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) and UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Some of the most popular GPU “majors” include veterinary medicine, food science and limnology.

“Professors are generally focused on their research, but we have several missions in a state university, and that’s also to inform the public,” Goodman says.

In addition to performing public service, GPU professors enjoy sharing in the experience that allows grandparents and grandchildren a special time to bond and appreciate the value of lifelong learning.

“It is so much fun to see grandparents with their grandchildren, working together,” says Barb Ingham, a UW–Madison assistant professor and UW-Extension Family Living Programs food science extension specialist who leads the food science major at GPU. “The kids’ eyes light up, and the grandparents get excited seeing their grandchildren learn.”

Professors often return year after year to GPU because they feel that teaching programs that must appeal to old and young alike help them to improve their teaching style. Goodman finds that once he identifies activities that are stimulating enough to capture the attention of even his youngest students, he modifies them for use in the entomology course he teaches to undergraduates.

“What spins their wheels is clearly going to spin somebody’s wheels at an older age,” Goodman says. “I try to make it as interesting as possible, but now dealing with 8-year-olds, you really are forced into doing that, and I just drag those exercises back into my classroom.”

All programs are again filled to capacity for the three sessions offered between July 17 and 25. This summer marks the first year that GPU will offer a third session to accommodate high demand for this interactive, intergenerational program.

“Really, the faculty are the ones to be credited,” says Sarah Schutt, senior director of Wisconsin Alumni Lifelong Learning, a partnership of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and the UW–Madison Division of Continuing Studies. “They believe so strongly in the outreach mission that they are willing to lead additional sessions.”

Chuck Henrikson, senior lecturer in the School of Veterinary Medicine, hopes that hands-on lessons with horses, cows and dogs may spark an interest in science among the grandchildren that reaches beyond the scope of the two-day GPU program, which he will teach for the sixth year this summer.

“We keep things moving from one thing to the next fairly quickly so nobody gets bored,” Henrikson says. “As long as we present things in an exciting, enthusiastic, fast-changing way, I would think that they would go back to their own schools and want to learn more about whatever topic they chose to learn about here at the university.”

Though faculty often don’t get to experience the gratification of knowing that their students pursue a topic after leaving GPU, Goodman was approached at the grocery store by a grandmother who recognized him as “the bug guy.” She told Goodman that since attending the GPU entomology course, her grandson has become an avid insect collector.

In a broader sense, Ingham says, she most enjoys seeing the multiple avenues that learning takes as grandchildren often teach their grandparents as much as the grandparents teach the grandchildren.

“I can’t think of a better activity to bring families together,” Ingham says. “I think you build a stronger relationship if you learn together, and that’s what this program allows families to do.”