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‘Critter Girl’ Takes Science Into The Classroom

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FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Dawn Getzandanner has always been curious about creatures and credits her mother with helping her to establish early on a comfort level with all creatures, but particularly those that make a lot of people squirm.

Now the elementary science teacher specialist for Frederick County Public Schools, a large part of Getzandanner’s job is procuring, caring for and teaching about “life science organisms” that she uses in teaching the county’s youngest students.

Critters were part of Getzandanner’s teaching style long before she became a science specialist. She taught third grade at Waverley and Valley elementary schools at the beginning of her career.

“Even as a classroom teacher, I was known as the teacher with the countertops covered with every creature imaginable,” she said.

While some people automatically thought living organisms in a classroom could be a distraction, Getzandanner found just the opposite.

“They inspire and motivate kids,” she said. “And I could get kids to write about animals when writing was the last thing they wanted to do.”

Getzandanner has a desk at the Earth and Space Science Laboratory, where she’s able to care for and keep an eye on the center’s nonhuman occupants. But her main role as a teacher specialist is to support the science curriculum in the county’s 36 elementary schools.

Her job has become much more difficult thanks to the economic downturn.

There used to be four elementary science teacher specialists, with each assigned to assist nine schools while having a share of other work, like curriculum development.

Now Getzandanner is it for the entire county, and finds herself stretched thinly.

“I’m pretty much at the beck and call of the teachers,” she said. “I try to get them everything they need to support the curriculum, and I provide lessons using my critters.”

Recently, Getzandanner and a bunch of tarantulas visited Sabillasville Elementary School to give a lesson about external features.

Some teachers are particularly squeamish about the organisms, and Getzandanner said she makes special efforts to supply lessons for those teachers. Some teachers who are more comfortable handling the creatures have one or two on semi-permanent loan to their classrooms.

Many of the organisms belong to Getzandanner. About 20 of the creatures on display at the ESSL, including a bearded dragon, snakes, tarantulas and Drupal, the popular iguana, are hers.

Drupal is enjoying a new life at the science center after life in a household that didn’t treat him properly.

Getzandanner found Drupal through FreeCycle, an online giveaway
website.

“He was really aggressive when I got him, and I think that was because of his habitat,” Getzandanner said. “Here, he has a bigger cage, and I did some research on his diet and he’s probably being fed much better.”

To help socialize Drupal, knowing that he would be subjected to constant crowds — predominantly young children — in his new home, Getzandanner said she would sit in front of his cage and play classical music from her cell phone.

“It sounds crazy, but I think it helped calm him down,” she said.

Kettle Corn and Caramel Corn are two corn snakes — what else — that she rescued from a pound. Another resident snake was donated after the boy who originally owned it lost interest.

Getzandanner is a Frederick County native who graduated from Gov. Thomas Johnson High School. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees and her administrative certificate from Hood College.

She now lives with her husband, Ricky, on a 32-acre farm in Knoxville where she has — you guessed it — more animals.

“We have horses, and we have a small cow-calf operation,” she said. “We have a bull, he makes babies, we sell the babies to pay our property taxes.”

Ricky Getzandanner tolerates his wife’s obsession with less-than-traditional pets with one exception.

“He’s not too happy if something gets loose,” she said with a laugh. “And occasionally a tarantula gets loose.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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