Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.

“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

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Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.

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