Teaching with Snakes

Steve Spangler recently interviewed snake expert, Pam Schmidt.

Steve Spangler recently interviewed snake expert, Pam Schmidt, as part of his salute to teachers who are Mad About Science! Ms. Schmidt teaches at Thunder Ridge Middle School in Aurora, Colorado. In Pam’s room there are 50 snakes of all sizes and colors. There’s Phantom, a 12′ 11″ Albino Burmese Python and Jazira, a 16″ Blotched King snake. Pam loves snakes, and shares that passion with all her students who learn plenty about their biology, habitat and eating habits.


Teaching with Snakes – Using snakes as a teaching tool is not as far-fetched as it sounds! They are relatively easy to care for, kids are fascinated by them, and they can be used for a huge variety of lessons far beyond the expected reptile and ecology topics.

Here are just a few of the topics that I have used the snakes to help illustrate:

  • Electromagnetic spectrum – infra-red sensing ability of pit vipers, boas and pythons, prismatic scales on Rainbow boas
  • Senses – using tuning forks so the kids can “hear” the same way the snakes do
  • Observation skills – both qualitative and quantitative
  • Newton’s Laws – snake locomotion and the 1st Law
  • Adaptation and evolution – different snakes have some amazing adaptations that help them be biologically successful in a huge variety of environments
  • Radio telemetry – we did an excellent project with the snakes a few years back
  • Genetics – the huge color variety in captive-bred cornsnakes can be used to demonstrate recessive and dominant trait inheritance
  • Psychology – phobias, desensitization, learned vs. innate responses
  • Classification – including phylogenetic relationships
  • The whole suite of habitat/ecology topics such as: predator/prey relationships and behaviors, camouflage, torpor, endotherms vs. ectotherms, food webs, mimicry, and nocturnal vs. diurnal vs. crepuscular habits.

In addition to science-based lessons, we also learn about geography, cultural beliefs, myths and folklore, and we use the snakes to generate data for graphing and other mathematical calculations. The kids hone their research and public speaking skills while getting ready for our presentations to elementary students. Taking care of the snakes each morning before school and/or as a “summer snake sitter” teaches lessons in responsibility, compassion and management.

By far one of the most important life lessons that we learn from the snakes is to respect diversity. We learn that prejudices and hatred often arise from lack of knowledge or fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. We learn, too, that those same prejudices can be eradicated with education, communication and empathy.

Pam extended this personal invitation… “If you would just love to get a snake for your home or classroom, let me know and we can discuss all the details (best species to start with, best place in town to get snakes and/or food, best snake veterinarians, etc). Or, maybe you just have more questions about our Slithers program here at Thunder Ridge. Either way PLEASE feel free to contact me via email at [email protected]

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