Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Case Study: Using Authentic Scientific Data for Teaching and Learning of Ecology

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Case Study: Using Authentic Scientific Data for Teaching and Learning of Ecology

Article excerpt

In today's knowledge-driven world, in which access to information is no longer a barrier but the ability to scrutinize and filter is paramount, students need to learn how to evaluate claims and data (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004). Graduate science and medical school courses routinely develop data evaluation skills by using published journal articles to teach students how to "think" scientifically (Cave & Clandinin, 2007; Iyengar et al, 2008; Kohlwes et al., 2006). Journal article analysis has also been adapted for undergraduate science learning (Hoskins, 2008; Hoskins, Stevens, & Nehm, 2007; Kitazono, 2010). Here, I describe a culminating assignment centered on published data designed for graduate students enrolled in a human ecology course in a Masters in Science Education program. The goal of this assignment was for students to use published scientific data to link daily life, human impact and sustainability to ecological function.

Course context

The human ecology course in which this assignment was implemented is rooted in the evolutionary-ecological land ethic espoused 80 years ago by preeminent wildlife ecologist, Aldo Leopold. Leopold understood the "land" as a system of interacting living and nonliving parts that were important both for their interactions and as valuable records of their past. To Leopold (1949), an organism's life history, its appearance, and even its surroundings were all evidence of the remarkable fact of its evolution. His recognition that each organism and ecosystem has an evolutionary history has provided the evolutionary framework that underlies the human ecology course content. Leopold understood human impact on ecology as a disruption of evolution. This interpretation of human impact as an evolutionary disruption of ecological function informs the "ecology-disrupted" lens through which the course content is understood.

The goal of the ecology-disrupted approach on which this human ecology course is based is to learn about the importance and complexity of normal ecological function, by studying the environmental issues that result when people disrupt them. This model uses the same intellectual approach that the field of genetics uses to understand gene function. Simply put, geneticists learn gene function by studying the phenotypes that result from mutations that disrupt normal gene function. In this model, students learn the complexity of functioning ecosystems by studying the environmental issues that result from human actions that disrupt normal ecological function. Studying ecological disruption unlocks the complexity that connects everyday human actions to environmental issues and shows the important role that ecology plays in daily life (Wyner & DeSalle, 2010). Framing this course as an exploration of how people disrupt evolutionary systems helps focus the course on the human connections to ecosystems and on how to alter behaviors and policies in order to live sustainably.

Course assignment

The centerpiece of the course is a data manipulation assignment that was assigned as a service-learning project with the American Museum of Natural History located in New York City. The museum is developing a website for disseminating professionally produced case studies for teaching environmental science to K-12 students using the ecology-disrupted framework. A component of the website will be a section in which teachers can contribute lesson plans that use the ecology-disrupted model. This culminating assignment was designed to seed this section of the website with teacher-created, ecology-disrupted lesson plans.

The goal of the assignment was for each student, working with a partner, to create and present a lesson plan that uses data on an environmental issue from one scientific publication to link the environmental issue to its underlying ecological concept(s), to daily life, and to some type of sustainable practice that can ameliorate the reported environmental issue. …

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