Renowned zoologist reveals stories behind his award-winning teaching

Professor Tim Birkhead holding a guillemot chick

One of the UK’s most renowned zoologists has revealed what inspired him to become an academic and teach the next generation of scientists as part of a public lecture.

Professor Tim Birkhead, who is one of the world’s leading experts on seabirds such as guillemots, has been teaching zoology students at the University of Sheffield for nearly 40 years.

His engaging and inspirational teaching style, which is loved by Sheffield students past and present, was recently recognised by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) when they awarded him a National Teaching Fellowship.

A renowned ornithologist and author, Professor Birkhead has been committed to making science accessible and interesting for all since he joined the University of Sheffield as a lecturer in 1976 after completing his PhD at Oxford.

After being encouraged by the positive feedback he received from his first undergraduate students, he has worked tirelessly throughout his career to enhance student learning.

During the public lecture, Professor Birkhead revealed how studying art and science at A-level and watching how comedians capture the attention of their audiences shaped his teaching style.

He also highlighted how two of his own former school teachers influenced the way he teaches his students.

The event saw Professor Birkhead share an insight into his animal behaviour research and teaching by including a free-flying group of starlings, which are trained by Lloyd Buck.

Professor Birkhead said: “When I was a student I remember sitting through many lectures that were so poorly delivered I promised myself that I would do things differently and try not to subject my own students to such tedium.

“In my early teaching days I spent some time talking about science to many different audiences. One of the most memorable was when I gave a science talk in a pub in Doncaster – I had prepared some material but I was getting a pretty tough reception at first. I decided to abandon what I’d prepared half way through and then the atmosphere suddenly changed, people started to warmly take an interest in what I was saying. This was a significant turning point in my teaching style.”

After being awarded a National Teaching Fellowship, Professor Birkhead arranged a trip for his first year University of Sheffield students to visit Bempton Cliffs Seabird Reserve in East Riding of Yorkshire. During the trip, the science students had the opportunity to observe the full range of courtship and pair bonding behaviour of many different seabird species.

Jasmine Trinder, a second-year student from the University of Sheffield who is taught by Professor Birkhead, said: “What makes Tim's teaching so memorable and engaging is a combination of his evident enthusiasm and his entertaining anecdotes collected throughout a long and successful career in research.

“Despite being an expert in his field, Tim's approach to teaching lacks any sort of condescension and invites the curiosity and insight of his students. I was very touched when he chose to invest the money he had received through the National Teaching Fellowship into providing an opportunity for first year undergraduates to visit Bempton Cliffs and attend the New Networks for Nature conference. His devotion to cultivating the minds of future biologists is evident in his teaching both inside and outside of the classroom. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be taught by Tim this year, and I hope I shall be able to utilise the curiosity he has inspired in me within my own career.”

Professor Birkhead added: “When teaching students at the University of Sheffield, I’ve always tried to capture their imagination and help them think about things in science that will inspire them to learn and reach their potential – whether that be teaching in a lab or seminar or taking students on fieldtrips so they can study animal behaviour first hand.”

Aside from teaching, Professor Birkhead has been studying guillemots on Skomer Island for almost 50 years in one of the longest running scientific studies of its kind.

His guillemot research has revealed significant insights into the effects of climate change, including the way more frequent storms kill tens of thousands of birds such as guillemots, puffins and razorbills.

The University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences is home to one of the biggest communities of whole-organism biologists in the UK. Research in the department, which is fed into learning and teaching for Sheffield students, covers animals, plants, humans, microbes, evolution and ecosystems, in habitats ranging from the polar regions to the tropics. This work aims to shed new light on the fundamental processes that drive biological systems and help solve pressing environmental problems.

Study in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

For more information on Professor Birkhead’s research on the guillemots of Skomer Island and his fundraising to continue this work, visit:

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852