Teaching Evolution

Shannon teaching in her biology classroom.It was only after Science Department Head Shannon Guidotti arrived on Taft’s campus 13 years ago that she learned she would be teaching a class on evolution.

“I was expecting to teach traditional biology classes,” says Shannon. “I was assigned AP Enviro, chemistry, and evolution. I wanted to cry.” 

Her department chair assured her that she would be fine. And of course, she was. Shannon’s career as a scientist, thought leader, and educator has been marked by discovery, shaped by deeply personal experience, and advanced through adaptation—a process not unlike evolution, itself. It has also been driven by passion.

“I’ve loved science since elementary school,” Says Shannon. “I wanted to be an astronaut and go into space. Every Talented and Gifted project I did was about planets, space exploration, women in space—I just really loved space.”

With middle school came change: A tendency toward motion sickness that would surely preclude space travel, and a new interest—biology.

“In biology there always seemed to be something new to learn and I loved that—I loved the process of discovery,” Shannon says. “In high school, I had an amazing biology teacher, Dr. Akiri. I had never had a teacher push me and challenge me in the way that she did, but also believe in me the way that she did. There was just something about her that really hooked me and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

The path Shannon saw for herself came into sharper focus during her senior year of high school, when her cousin was diagnosed with metastasized melanoma.Shannon leading students through a fetal pig dissection.

“She was the cousin I was physically and emotionally closest to—she lived next door, and we were almost the same age. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer had spread throughout her body. I spent many nights at the end of my senior year with her at the hospital. Because I had this interest and passion in biology, I became kind of the spokesperson for my family, working with the doctors, gathering information, researching medications when they said they would be making changes, finding out what it all meant, asking questions, explaining things to my family.”

Already thinking medicine, this experience as researcher, interpreter, and compassionate guide led Shannon to think about a career as an oncologist. She began preparing for it with a deep sense of commitment and wholehearted passion. 

“I showed up to campus with my four years mapped out—every class, every semester, when I was going to finish my major, my minor—I had a focus and I had a goal,” says Shannon. “I did the pre-med track and loved it. I remember taking a class on developmental biology thinking it was really fascinating watching a chick develop in an egg. I took a class on cloning and stem cells, which in 2002 was so cutting edge. I thought, ‘This is all so amazing.’”

Shannon interned with an oncology nurse in Hawaii during the summer after her sophomore year, shadowing her as she moved through her days on a cancer floor of a major hospital. She also got exposure to their outpatient chemotherapy center, and had the opportunity to teach student nurses a course on mitosis and the cell cycle in cancer. That experience, coupled with her cousin’s illness and passing, left an indelible mark.

Shannon consults with a student in her biology classroom.

“It was right before senior fall. I had taken my MCATs,  had my medical school applications ready to go and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be an oncologist, I want to be an oncology nurse,’” Shannon recalls. “I want to be the person working with the families and the patients, not the person writing a script for chemotherapy.” 

The shift required time and preparation. Having enjoyed her prep school years at Ethel Walker, and recalling the impact biology teacher Dr. Akiri had on her life, Shannon decided to teach science at the Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, while preparing to enter a graduate program in nursing. 

“They welcomed me with open arms,” says Shannon. “I was the only bio and AP Bio teacher. I taught five sections of biology, lived in the dorm, coached soccer and basketball. It was a wonderful experience for me, but I felt like I was bursting at the seams after just a few years.”

The rest is Taft history. 

Shannon not only overcame her initial apprehension about teaching evolution, she embraced it—an adaptation punctuated by travel to the Galapagos Islands.

“It was amazing to walk on islands that Darwin was on, and to see animals that are from nowhere else in the world and to watch that adaptation at work,” Shannon says. “The trip was transformational. To be there and see it—to live it—brings that whole sense of wonder we hope to inspire in our students. When I teach about evolution now I speak from a different perspective. I can describe biomes, and plants, and animals, and why they have adapted the way they have. Understanding evolution as the chief unifying principle in biology that weaves everything else together allows me to appreciate it in such a different light.”

Shannon guiding students through fetal pig dissectionAnd while evolution is no longer a course on its own, it is a core piece of other life science courses at Taft. Shannon played an integral role the recalibrating Taft’s biology curriculum, and has been a big supporter of academic innovation throughout the department. She has taught a host of biology courses and other science electives, including a multi-disciplinary, scientific ethics course of her own design. She has been a member of Taft’s Gender Committee since its inception, has worked with the diversity committee, coached a number of teams, has been a dorm head, and served as the Upper Mid Class Dean for six years. Almost two years ago, Shannon was tapped to lead Taft’s science department.

“I love my job at Taft and I love the many hats we all wear, but when I step into my bio class every day I get excited. I love going to the class. I love the a-ha moments. I love how rewarding it is to share my knowledge about things that I am so excited and passionate about,” Shannon says. “This may not be the job I thought I was going to have when I was planning out my life back in college, but I know that it matters. I know that it matters that I show up every day. You can see the effects short term, but the thing that sustains you is that long term when you hear from a student later on, or someone takes the time to send a text or a message, or they come back on Alumni Day and they’re still talking about something that you did in your class, or they write to you from college and say, ‘I was using my notes,’ or ‘I remembered this trick that you taught me.’ I love that impact—that connection that continues to deepen—and I love the relationships that I’ve been able to build with a really wide range of students. Sometimes my students will ask, “Do you still want to be a nurse?’ The truth is, I love what I do, and I can’t imagine anything better.”