Centre College’s Winter Term, also known as CentreTerm, is full of surprises and learning opportunities, especially if you’re a first-year student. One such first-year class, Snakes on a Plane, has been declared a rousing success ever since its introduction in 2010.
The class, which takes its name from the 2006 movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a grab bag of biology, culture and the influence that snakes have had on society throughout history. Dr. Brian Storz, assistant professor of biology, leads the class.
As a herpetologist, Storz has always been a fan of snakes, and Centre has allowed him to explore the subject with students in a wider context than biology.
“One of our main goals at Centre College is to teach students how to think about a topic from multiple angles,” said Storz, “which gives a much fuller understanding of a topic, and snakes are an exceptionally rich subject to achieve this goal.”
First-year student Clayton Trette of Dallas, Texas, said of Storz, “(He) is really interesting, and knows a lot about the topic (of snakes) ... you get sucked into it.”
The fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias, but first-year student Laura Tan of Kansas City, Kan. said, “I’m not afraid of snakes — I think they’re cute.” She said the most interesting things she’s done in the class has been handling several different snakes and watching cobras get milked for their venom at the Kentucky Reptile Museum in Slade.
Trette said, “Originally, I was terrified of snakes, and I thought that taking this class would help me conquer my fears.”
So far, that logic seems to be working. Storz noted that all of the students are now comfortable holding snakes, which they do almost every day.
In any case, they didn’t have much time to be scared. On the first day, without introduction, “he just pulled a snake out ... and said, ‘Here’s a snake! Who wants to hold it?’” Trette said and laughed.
Specimens of snakes the class has learned about and handled include a boa constrictor, a corn snake and a python.
Stella, a red-tailed boa, is 7 feet long. She, like many other snakes that the students handle, have been donated to the school by people who can no longer care for them because of their size.
But in the classroom the snakes are treated like any other domestic pet. The students stroke them, carry them and even let the snakes wrap over their shoulders, as Alexei Wade of Fort Knox did.
“They’re no more dangerous than dogs,” Wade said. “More people die of dog bites every year than they do from snakes.”
Storz noted that, despite this truth, most people have a hard time rationalizing their fear of snakes because they’re so different from most animals, particularly the lack of limbs. “It’s hard to think, ‘It’s like me,’” he said.
That mix of fascination and fear is what makes the course so interesting. Not only is the class learning about the biological processes of snakes, but also the role they play in our society and how we have viewed them over history.
Storz said, “Although the biology and behavior of snakes is interesting, one of the most fascinating topics we explore is how snakes are related to various religions and why they are worshipped in some cultures but reviled in others.”
“It’s more interesting than I thought it would be ... it’s been more than I expected from a first-year course,” Tan said.
Storz hopes the class will empower the students to be less afraid of snakes through a better understanding of the subject.
“I hope the students leave my course with two important take-ways: first, a deep understanding of why snakes are historically one of the most powerful animals and symbols on our planet, and second, that the more you learn about a topic, the less likely you are to be fearful of it.”