Earlier this summer, I TA’ed Ecology & Conservation Biology bi-weekly discussions, an upper division course for Biology majors, in the accelerated summer session. Five week summer courses are great: intense, fast-paced, and immersive. I was excited to implement, for the first time, recently acquired active learning approaches in my efforts to engage a class of predominantly pre-medical students with the subjects I myself am passionate about. Teaching pre-medical undergraduates is a familiar challenge at UC Riverside – fellow ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists & physiologists joke about turning students to the dark side, i.e. not pre-med. Here I describe the active learning strategies I used each week- (spoiler alert): scroll to the bottom for my biggest success!
Week 1: Remember & Recognize
After 4 lectures (reminder: 5 week classes are INTENSE!), students had learned how abiotic variation creates environmental diversity globally. So we headed to the UC Riverside Botanic Gardens to find plants representative of dominant biomes around the world. Students explored the gardens, photographed representative plants, and submitted their photos to the Riverside NatureSpotter app for local citizen science. Each observation is stored on iNaturalist.org, with a description indicating the plant’s native biome.
Ecology & Conservation Biology students hiking in to the UC Riverside Botanic Gardens to practice recognizing various biomes!
Each student uploaded their plant observations through the Riverside NatureSpotter app to the Riverside Citizen Science project on iNaturalist.org. In addition to naming the plant species, they provided the biome in which the plant naturally occurs under the Description.
Week 2: Interpret & Solve
No ecology course is complete without math; Lotka-Volterra equations are integral to population ecology (pun!). In groups, each student assumed a group role from the POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) model to calculate changes in population size through time, and to predict the outcome of competition between two species. Also, everyone was quite happy to stay indoors during the record-breaking heat wave!
Ecology & Conservation Biology discussion in action: groups of 4 students each worked together to solve iterative equations and make predictions about their populations.
Each group calculated the required values and graphed the zero-growth isoclines for their “Species 1” and “Species 2”, which they used to predict the outcome of competition.
Each group calculated population change through time under different conditions. They each graphed their results on the board to compare the very different trajectories.
Week 3: Defend & Infer
After completing roughly half of the course, students applied their ecological knowledge in a class-wide debate, arguing for and against a series of 8 Ecological Maxims, listed below. Each student came to class prepared to argue both sides for every maxim, and students were then randomly selected on the spot to present their arguments. This class-wide debate also served as an interactive review session for the next day’s midterm: students used course material and examples from lecture to support their arguments.
8 Ecological Maxims –
- You can never do just one thing
- Everything goes somewhere
- No population can increase in size forever
- There is no free lunch
- Evolution matters
- Time matters
- Space matters
- Life would be impossible without species interactions
Following the midterm, students paired up to apply their ecological knowledge to one of my favorite subjects: invasive species! Each pair made inferences about how & why some species become invasive, & whether more diverse habitats more or less susceptible to invasion.
Invasive species are subject to limitations and opportunities in their new habitats. Students thought of several examples of biotic and abiotic factors that both limit and promote invasive species. Figure from Shea & Chesson 2002.
Students pondered the pattern depicted here: within habitats, increasing native species diversity is correlated with decreasing invasive species diversity. But across multiple habitats, increasing native species diversity is correlated with increasing invasive species diversity! What explains the reversal of this pattern at large scales? Figure from Shea & Chesson 2002.
Invasive species ecology figures from: Shea, K., Chesson, P. 2002. Community ecology theory as a framework for biological invasions. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17, 170-176.
Week 4: Be an ecologist & Meet a conservation biologist!
As Pokémon Go took the world by storm, students practiced catching real-life critters for Team Citizen Science! Students set out pecan sandie cookie traps around UC Riverside campus for the School of Ants project. Most samples were dominated by invasive Argentine Ants, Linepithema humile, but most students also caught Pikachu! Win win!
Bagged samples of field-collected ants for the School of Ants citizen science project.
After trying on the role of ecologist for a day, several real-life ecologists & conservation biologists visited class for a personalized Career Day. Each shared their job description, career back-story, lots of advice, encouragement, & hard-won wisdom.
Steven Su, Scientific Programs Director at West Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District
Grace Hartt, Seasonal Assistant at Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District
Korie Merrill, Supervisory Biologist at Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands
Molly Peters, Biologist at Edith Read & Associates supporting Southern California Edison
Aaron Echols, Field Ecologist at Inland Empire Resource Conservation District
Nicole Stutzman, Land Steward at Riverside Lands Conservancy
Career Day Panelists for Ecology & Conservation Biology
Career Day Panelists for Ecology & Conservation Biology
Career Day Panelists:
Steven Su: Scientific Programs Director at West Valley Mosquito & Vector Control District, email@example.com
Molly Peters: Biologist at Edith Read & Associates supporting Southern California Edison, firstname.lastname@example.org
Grace Hartt: Seasonal Assistant at Orange County Mosquito & Vector Control District, email@example.com
Aaron Echols: Field Ecologist at Inland Empire Resource Conservation District, firstname.lastname@example.org
Korie Merrill: Supervisory Biologist at Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, email@example.com
Nicole Stutzman: Land Steward at Riverside Lands Conservancy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Week 5: Critique & Create
In that last home stretch just before summer-time freedom, students presented their final projects –
- An independent critique of a media story related to ecology and/or conservation biology;
- A group website of their own design, presenting a management plan of their own creation for a southern California endangered or invasive species.
Brown-headed Cowbird California Condor Humpback Whale
San Joaquin Kit Fox Zebra Mussel Green Sea Turtle
These are amazing – in just 1 month, students applied their classroom knowledge to a real-world problem, integrating textbook concepts with independent research – then presented cohesive, carefully constructed management plans, in visually pleasing websites! Watching my students present their work filled me with pride in them; learning that most actually enjoyed the process of creating their websites and recommended I implement this assignment into future classes… left me feeling pride in myself. I had achieved something remarkable – I created an opportunity for learning to become fun and to feel useful. And hey, let’s hope I may have even turned a few to dark side!