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   from the issue of July 26, 2007

Ferraro turns passion into life of teaching


Not too many people know their calling in life by third grade.

FACE TO FACE - Dennis Ferraro, Extension associate professor, examines a Cuban rock iguana during a 2006 survey of the species...
FACE TO FACE - Dennis Ferraro, Extension associate professor, examines a Cuban rock iguana during a 2006 survey of the species on a small island near Puerto Rico. Courtesy photo.

Dennis Ferraro, on the other hand, knew he wanted to be a herpetologist, and amphibians and reptiles have been a part of his life ever since.

"When I told my teacher I wanted to be a herpetologist, she ran to the dictionary to look it up," Ferraro said with a laugh. "She didn't know what it was."

As an extension associate professor for UNL, Ferraro's goal is to educate people who don't know how important amphibians and reptiles are to the ecosystem. He hopes to instill a stewardship within the public - not only for snakes, salamanders and lizards, but all wildlife and natural resources, he said.

Ferraro's itch for herpetology traces back the woods and streams near his childhood home in Connecticut. From there, he moved on to Iowa State University, where he was enrolled in a 400-level herpetology course by the second semester of his freshman year.

"I got the second highest grade in the class," Ferraro said.

Fortunately for UNL students, he eventually made his way to the School of Natural Resources where he now teaches a herpetology course every odd fall semester.

Ferraro makes the process of learning entertaining and practical. His herpetology course, which includes three lectures and a lab each week, typically has few absences, he said.

"I have a theory that if you're taught something, you learn some of it. If you watch it, you learn a little more. But if you go out in the field and actually do it, that something becomes a part of you. Once it becomes a part of you, you'll never forget it," Ferraro said.

Outside of his responsibilities as an instructor, Ferraro works with research and outreach projects. Even though it sometimes means driving across the state with live snakes in tow, his public demonstrations reflect his philosophy of hands-on learning.

On one occasion, Ferraro took elementary students from a school in Omaha to a local wetland to do small projects on population and pollution. He later received a letter from the parents of one student explaining that their daughter, who had always struggled with science, was doing an excellent job in class.

"They wanted to thank me," Ferraro said. "That felt good."

His passion and teaching success are summed up in a favorite quote.

"We only conserve what we respect or love; we only respect or love what we understand; we only understand what we are taught," Ferraro said. "Therefore, I teach Herpetofauna Conservation."

Kaylee Olson is a senior agricultural journalism major from Craig, Neb.



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