Like most people, Logan Randolph had often thought about what he’d do if he came into some extra cash.
Unlike most people, he decided he’d spend it on poison dart frogs.
Randolph got his windfall — and the chance to spend it on amphibians — when he was named a Polk State College Foundation Endowed Teaching Chair in 2013.
Each year, the Foundation recognizes outstanding faculty members as Endowed Teaching Chairs. Each recipient gets $5,000 to spend on things like technology, professional development, higher education — various things to enhance their instruction and, ultimately, the student experience.
But Randolph, a biology professor and coordinator of the Winter Haven science department, opted to spend a portion of his money on the frogs, as well as tanks and exotic plants to make the little creatures feel right at home.
Randolph, a self-described “biology geek,” can’t recall when he was first captivated by frogs. He remembers being a kid and catching them in a bucket outside his home in Kentucky. Eventually that childhood interest spiraled into his life’s work.
He studied at Miami University in Ohio, earning a bachelor’s in Biology, a master’s in Botany and Mycology, and doctorate in Biology and Anthropology. He has decades of teaching experience, and prior to joining Polk’s faculty six years ago, he worked in enforcement for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
But his resume just tells you the professional side of Randolph’s passion for science. There’s a personal side too. His home is a haven for rare plants. He raises tarantulas, an interest that recently landed him in the international media spotlight. He also has an affinity for fish, and has plenty of those swimming at his house too.
About three semesters ago, Randolph took a long, hard look at the way science was being taught at Polk. He envisioned a lab full of living things, relying less on slides, models, textbook diagrams and pickled specimens.
And the poison dart frogs, he thought, would fit perfectly into that vision.
Science lesson interruption: Poison dart frogs are native to Central and South America. There are more than 100 different species of the frogs, accounting for their wide variety of colors and markings. They excrete toxins through their skin that can cause muscle paralysis — or even death. They got their name because tribal people used the frogs’ poison to taint their darts and more effectively hunt their prey.
Safety disclaimer: Randolph says poison dart frogs are not typically toxic in captivity, but they should always be handled with caution.
Randolph began having his Biology II students raise poison dart frogs from the tadpole stage. The tadpoles are bought locally. They’re about three or four weeks old when they come to Polk, and measure about an inch long.
Students raise the tadpoles in small plastic boxes, studying their development and progression toward full-grown frog status.
“The lab focus is development. They’re the perfect developmental project,” Randolph said, who also used his Endowed Teaching Chair funds to buy rare fish and send students to study in the Bahamas last year. “Over the course of a semester, we are able to witness them go from the aquatic stage to the terrestrial stage.”
At the end of a semester, Randolph takes the young frogs to his home, where they can safely mature for a while longer. He’s currently boarding about 10 student-raised frogs.
The tadpole-raising project has been a huge hit among Randolph’s students. Even after the semester ends, students drop by Randolph’s office to inquire about their tadpoles. Some students have started raising poison dart frogs as a hobby.
“It’s really cool. You get to see all the life stages of the frog,” said Eric Linder, a Lakeland resident who is pursuing his Associate in Arts degree to ultimately study environmental engineering. Linder is taking Biology II with Professor Anthony Cornett, who has incorporated Randolph’s tadpole project into his classes.
“Whenever you can actually get your hands on something and actually see it in the lab, it’s better. We get to discover things for ourselves and seeing it in real life solidifies what we learn.”
When he was named an Endowed Teaching Chair, Randolph wanted to build on the success of the tadpole-raising project by creating a large poison dart frog habitat in the lab.
“It seemed like a logical progression of the project, to give the students the ability to see the final stage of the frogs’ development,” he said. “It makes it all more real to them than just seeing something in a jar.”
Randolph made setting up the large poison dart frog vivarium a student project. Students helped install the 25 different orchid species — and the menagerie of other rare plants — it houses. They helped arrange the landscape, including a small ledge that has become the frogs’ favorite hangouts.
Stop by the lab in WSC and you can watch the frogs hopping around their home. They all come out of their various cubbies when Randolph sprinkles in a healthy helping of live bugs.
Eventually, once they’re mature enough to defend themselves, Randolph will introduce the student-raised frogs into the habitat. One day, he said, the frogs will breed, providing tadpoles for future students to study.
Future reproductive possibilities aside, Vice President for Academic Services Kenneth Ross said Randolph’s frogs are creating plenty of immediate — if intangible — benefits.
“Biology is the study of living things. That Dr. Randolph’s students are now studying ‘living things’ by actually studying ‘living things,’ is huge to keeping them engaged. Plus, Dr. Randolph has such passion not only for his subject matter, but also for these frogs in particular. That passion surely rubs off on his students, making them excited to go to class.”
At Polk State, students study a broad range of natural and physical sciences, either as requirements for their Associate in Arts degrees prior to transferring to four-year institutions, or entering one of the College’s bachelor’s or Health Sciences programs.