Seasoned science instructor brings experience to outdoor classroom


by Jim North
Southeast Campus Editor

Mark Swanson is assistant professor of biology at Tulsa Community College (TCC), teaching courses in biology, zoology and ecology.

His bachelor’s degree is from Oklahoma State University in wildlife biology. His master’s degree is from Northeastern State University in biology teaching.

Swanson was “Lead Keeper of Large Mammals” at the Tulsa Zoo for nearly 30 years, overseeing elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceros.

Some of his duties included the training of elephants, administering of medicine to animals, foot care and basic good husbandry practices.

The “Species Survival Program” has allowed for endangered species to be brought in for closely monitored breeding.

Swanson recalls that the oldest elephant at the Tulsa Zoo is named “Gunda,” and has been living there since 1954.

He transitioned over to TCC because of his love for teaching, and is currently in his 16th year as an instructor.

“I like teaching. I’ve been doing that all my life, even at the zoo because we worked with kids.”

He adds that his father and grandfather were both teachers, so teaching is in his blood.

Swanson has been active in programs that inform people about animals through live demonstrations to area schools and college classes.

A fulfilling aspect of Swanson’s work is “when I get people to realize there’s another world out there.”

Occasionally, he has students who recognize this is an area they would like to study and then they change fields through the information that has been presented.

“I’m really devoted to
getting students to learn about the outdoor environment, what we need to protect it—because our environment is in a lot of trouble.”

Part of the intrigue of science, according to Swanson is that it is always changing and evolving. There is always something new to learn.

Some TCC students enrolled in science classes have been able to participate in study abroad trips to locations such as Costa Rica.

Swanson desires that students at TCC are well-prepared for the transition to a four-year institution from their experience here.

“I want to teach the skills of how to study, how to write … the background [required] if they go into other science classes … to get the basics.”

He adds that learning to write, communicating well, and being a good listener is more of a necessity for today’s college student than in times past.

Swanson offers pointers for student success in the classroom.

First, prepare before coming to class. Review material before arriving, and do not wait just before the exam to study.

He also encourages students to participate in order to maximize their learning experience.

Communication with the instructor, as well as fellow-students is also important.

He adds, “College should be fun, not just coming here to work. You should have good fun and make the learning fun … it’s not here to drive you as a slave to learn.”


Swanson points out that TCC has an excellent STEM program—science, technology, education and math.

“We’re trying to get more students to major in the
sciences, or the harder type classes, because we need that in this country. We need people to learn critical thinking, how to think outside the box.”

He says the stigma that science is hard, boring work is simply not true. It should be fun and motivated. Learning science helps students learn about themselves, as well as the world around them.

Swanson emphasizes that a good work ethic now will translate later into the workforce. The same principles that facilitate success in the classroom are the ones which pay dividends in one’s future.

Swanson enjoys backpacking, camping, listening to music and travel. “I like going places.”

He has future dreams of doing more travel.

“There’s a lot of places I still want to see. I want to still travel most of the South. I’d like to do the whole western hemisphere—all the way from Barrow, Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.”

Currently, TCC is involved in a “pond project,” at the Southeast Campus (SEC). It is being conducted in partnership with the U.S. Fishing and Wildlife Department.

A $10,000 grant has helped to launch the project.

The pond has been partially drained in order to produce a natural wetlands. Since the draining, more bird life has resulted, and newer species of frogs.

Swanson is trying to grow a tall grass prairie on the nearby peninsula.

One of the advantages of the venture is turning the area into a large, instructional, outdoor classroom for the science department.

There is plenty of ecology, biology and botany to study, including interesting plant life and unusual flowers, according to Swanson.

There are also trails at the SEC behind the pond where classes take excursions to study plant life and animals.

Some of the fascinating wildlife that can be observed at the SEC include blue heron, great egret, snowy egret,
plovers, leopard frogs, cricket frogs, snapping turtles, ducks, hooded merganser, gadwalls, northern shovelers, horned grebe, and even a turkey vulture.

Rounding out the list includes lots of snakes, though none venomous, according to Swanson. These include mostly northern water snakes, blotched water snakes, diamond-back water snakes and rat snakes in the woods.

“So we need to protect the areas. There’s a lot of wildlife just in this condensed area.”

Swanson encourages students to become more active in learning about their own fascinating surroundings.

“Just go outside and enjoy the environment. Get outside. Put down your cell phone and go look around.”

For more information about the TCC pond project or science classes at the SEC, contact Mark Swanson at
(918) 595-8639 or