Teaching with a farmer's touch
Long before sunup, well before students start streaming into lecture halls and wet labs on Alvernia’s bucolic campus, Professor Leon Neiman starts his first job.
In the still of the morning, he pulls on his worn John Deere hat and plain clothes, as he calls them, and heads outside. With sunbeams breaking across the horizon, the 40-year veteran of the classroom makes sure everything is in order at his family’s farm in nearby Fleetwood.
“Remember the ‘Green Acres’ TV show? That’s what I always dreamed of having,” he says, chuckling. “I love farming. The ability to be able to put seeds in the ground and watch something grow, or the ability to help birth a newborn calf, is amazing. You can see your accomplishments every morning. It’s a neat way of seeing the world.”
When he’s not tilling the soil or harvesting hay, he can be found on Alvernia’s main campus teaching human anatomy or at the Reading Hospital School of Health Sciences teaching physiology classes to nursing students enrolled in the Alvernia RN to BSN completion program there.
However, it wasn’t all that long ago that Neiman worked three jobs to save money for a down payment on his farm to bale hay and grow grains until his heart’s content. Winter months are like mini-vacations since his farm tasks lighten. However, days become longer as warm weather returns and he again adds beef cows to the farm, he says. He’s also harvesting honey (from his bees), experimenting with a vineyard and maintaining a large garden.
His entire family has helped out on the farm at one time or another, including his wife, Linda, and four children: Jennifer, a high school chemistry teacher; Michael, who works in financial services; Jill, who is completing her M.D., Ph.D. residency program; and David, a recent Alvernia grad who landed an accounting job at Herbein + Company, Inc. “Farming is a good life, but it’s a tough life,” he says. “They (my kids) learned responsibility and hard work.”
On campus, Neiman enjoys watching the seeds of his real-world lessons take root with students. For him, that means skipping long lectures in favor of open discussions. Rather than relying on a textbook, he prefers to show students real brain tissue of zoology specimens or a fresh pig heart during his biology courses.
“I’ve taught courses in the biological curriculum for over 40 years, including stints at Reading Area Community College and Kutztown University,” Neiman said. “It’s always been important to find ways to engage students in lessons that aren’t limited to textbooks or lectures, especially in the biological sciences.
“I like giving a realistic view of science,” says Neiman, who joined the Alvernia faculty in 2011. “I want to help students build careers in the science fields and give them a good foundation.” His research work helps him do just that. “My research and pedagogical interest are actually very similar. I am trying to develop techniques that would improve processing information from short-term to long-term memory in the classroom setting,” he said. His earlier research dealt with small-fish feeding behaviors and determining whether the feeding was opportunistic or selective.
His new passion, he says, is working hands-on at Alvernia’s student-led Bog Turtle Creek Farm, where he feels right at home. There, he’s able to use plots of land — and all that sprouts from them — to instill the university’s service learning mission, engage students and provide healthy produce for Reading families who lack access to affordable fresh vegetables.
This year, volunteers are planting new crops like cilantro, peppers and tomatoes to appeal to the customer base, he says. “We also hope to provide opportunities for students to design and conduct biological research related to agriculture and sustainability gardening.
“Some people don’t realize what goes into their food. If you can help people understand sustainability and (the importance of) fresh vegetables, it has such value,” he says. “It’s about education. Once you do that, they’ll want much more because they’ll know they have options. It’s encouraging to be a part of that.”