Educators & scientists to swap ideas for a robust biology classroom

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Say you’re a plant biologist who wants to devise educational components for your research project but you’re not sure what might work well for high school students.  Or say you’re a high school biology teacher looking to ramp up how you challenge your students with the latest research findings and tools.  Enter the upcoming Life Discovery Conference, which will bring about 120 educators and scientists together to enrich biology education for high school and undergraduate students. Organized by a consortium of four scientific societies with a collective membership of nearly 20,000, the inaugural conference will take place at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, from March 15-16, 2013.  The conference is part of the consortium’s Digital Resource Discovery project, led by Teresa Mourad, Director of Education and Diversity Programs at the Ecological Society of America. “This will really be a small working conference,” said Jeff Corney, conference local host and managing director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.  “It’s structured to promote the use of digital resources and new technologies, publish classroom-friendly resources in LifeDiscoveryEd Digital Library and emphasize research-rich biology education.” Peer working groups will give educators feedback on lesson plans or activities during education share fair roundtables held during the conference. “Our vision is to offer a session format where educators and scientists can present their digital resources to their peers for feedback by submitting a draft entry into the digital library,” explains Corney. “We hope that in this manner, they will quickly understand the issues for high quality education and incorporate suggestions and ideas by their peers.” Another goal envisioned by the partnering organizations is to encourage communities of practice. “We really want to foster greater interaction between educators and scientists,” said Thomas Meagher, Conference Planning Chair and professor at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. “These groups have so much to learn from each other and together can greatly enhance our mutual desire for greater hands-on, data-driven biology in the classrooms.” In addition to the education share fair roundtables, the conference will include keynote presentations and panel discussions from a wide range of educators and scientists, such as Jay Labov, Senior Advisor for Education and Communication for the National Academy of Sciences, Nancy Geving, a high school science coach for St. Paul public schools and Gillian Roehrig, with the University of Minnesota’s STEM Education Center. Workshops and short presentations geared to enhance understanding of key concepts and active learning techniques will also take place both days. Among the topics: using technology to connect students and scientific data, solving engineering problems in nature, using mathematical modeling to...

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Open access: friend or foe?

Open access to scientific journals is a contentious issue in the sciences. A recent article in the (open-access) journal PLoS Biology makes the case that open access is the way of the future and is good for science, scientists and universities alike. In his essay, David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities says that limiting access to scientific publications not only prevents the public from knowing what goes on at universities, but also impedes scientific research itself. Citing a 2007 AAAS survey of scientists, he says that 29 percent of science researchers have had their research affected by difficulty accessing literature. His bottom line? The only solution that gives science the maximum chance for advancement is one that ensures that all science findings are available to all researchers. Shulenberg conceded that the current model will not allow all scientific journals to instantly become free, since of course they have bills to pay. He proposes instead a transition period in which journals go “public access”: papers are embargoed for one year after their publication, during which access is restricted to subscribers only. Once that year is up, the paper then goes open-access. Shulenburger applauds the moves made by the NIH to mandate that all articles produced from NIH-funded research be deposited in the online archive PubMed Central. But he maintains that this is only half the battle: While deposit mandates should be universally adopted by funders, such agencies support only a fraction of the work that is published in scholarly journals. Large portions of important work in most fields originate beyond US borders. Most work outside the physical and biological sciences is not funded by grants external to the university and will not be touched by such mandates. Given that important problems are seldom bounded by a single discipline’s research, access to the non-science scholarly literature is potentially important to all researchers. What your (and your university’s) opinion about open access? Will open-access journals pave the way for more rigorous and transparent research practices? Or will open access simply put time-tested institutions out of business? And with those last words, I sign off as moderator of EcoTone. I have thoroughly enjoyed running this blog over the last year, and I thank all of our readers for your thoughtful e-mails, comments and feedback. The rest of the ESA Public Affairs Office will pick up where I have left off, so…don’t change that dial. Cheers! – Christine...

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A Conference about Water and Ecology

Nancy Grimm welcomes attendees to the first ESA Millennium Conference. ESA’s first Millennium Conference kicked off today in Athens, GA. The meeting is bringing together ecologists and social scientists to engage in conversations about one of the most dramatic emerging challenges in ecology: that of clean water and water scarcity.  While ecologists’ main expertise is in providing and maintaining adequate water for healthy ecosystems, social scientists are expert in and concerned about scarce water and allocation across diverse communities. The discussion this morning focused on several key issues associated with water conservation. Nancy Grimm was the president of ESA when the Millennium series was suggested, and she welcomed the group to the conference. In her opening remarks, she was the first to bring up the fact that for water reform and management to really take hold, it needs to occur at a regional level.  All-encompassing water legislation, even at state levels, can pit differing priorities against one another; since ecosystem services are largely delivered at regional scales, their legislation should be regional as well. Ann Bartuska addresses a question during her talk about urban ecosystem services. But Carol Couch, formerly chief of environmental protection in Georgia, made the point that a difficult challenge is to learn how to legislate water and water rights among political boundaries.  Since ecosystems know no political boundaries, local politicians must learn to work together. “We need to explore systematically and synthetically how different societies throughout time have dealt with a common pool of resources, so it doesn’t devolve into the tragedy of the commons,” she said. “We need to start thinking about ecological services as a common pool.” A major challenge, she also mentioned, will be considering water as a common-pool resource in areas, like Georgia, where most (96 percent!) of the land is privately owned. Bob Naiman of Washington University made the great comment that it would be nice to have an “opinions map” – one that showed which people over the landscape have what opinions about water and how it should be used. This could inform management strategies and ground-up community initiatives. “We don’t need to convince people, we just need to speak in words they understand,” she said.”We could then spend less time advocating for a public campaign – but instead recruit people to work with us.” A final theme of the first several talks was interdisciplinarity.  As co-chair Ted Gragson of UGA pointed out, we’re ready to practice what we’ve often preached about interdisciplinarity. No water problem will be solved by an ecologist or a social scientist alone, which is the whole reason for the conference. Later this afternoon: Roger...

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ESA Conference: Drought & environmental justice

The first conference in ESA’s Millennium Series begins on Monday at the University of Georgia in Athens. The conference, titled “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought, and Environmental Justice,” will bring 100 scientists and land managers together to work on the resolution of social issues related to localized drought. The conference will focus on issues surrounding one of the biggest emerging environmental issues – water – and its relationship to human social structure. Although many areas experience periodic drought, the results of such drought often depend on an area’s government and policy, its infrastructure, and the behavior of its people. These factors can create differences in vulnerability to water shortages across communities with different racial, cultural and income profiles. The Millennium Conference aims to combine the knowledge of ecologists and social scientists to begin to address this issue of environmental justice. The Conference attendees will present 12 case studies on water shortages and their effect on societies throughout the world. In one study, an urban water shortage in Melbourne, Australia, led to a controversial infrastructure project to transfer water from a similarly water-stressed rural area to the city. In another, Michigan residents are fighting annual water bills as high as $10,000 and the potential privatization of their water resources. You can watch live streaming video of the plenary speakers on the Millennium Conference web site on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  Videos about each of the case studies are available. Learn more about ESA’s Millennium...

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Lawrence Slobodkin, 1928-2009

Lawrence Slobodkin, a revolutionary ecologist who played a major role in bringing the science of ecology into the quantitative realm, died last Friday. He was 81. Slobodkin’s most famous paper, titled “Community Structure, Population Control and Competition,” showcased his wide-aspect thought processes. The paper, sometimes known as “The World Is Green,” purports that because vegetation is abundant on Earth, communities are regulated by predators that limit herbivore populations. If this were not the case, herbivores would decimate plants — and the world would not be green.  This classic paper is still a staple read for students in community ecology. Read a really nice obituary at The New York Times, including tributes by Joseph Travis, Doug Futuyma and Michael...

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The EEB and Flow blog

If you haven’t yet taken the time to check out The EEB and Flow blog, make today the day. Marc Cadotte, who has quite recently moved from a postdoc in sunny California to a professorship in chilly Toronto (a metaphor here, maybe?), and his colleagues maintain an excellent blog on all things ecology and evolutionary biology. Their blog posts center around recent research in ecology and evolutionary biology and the lives of the people who do it, including personal stories and musings about the state of the field as a career choice. I bring up the EEB and Flow now because Marc blogged from the ESA meeting last week, posting about talks he saw on invasive species, the reality (or not) of macroecology as its own discipline, and species interactions/community assembly.  Check out Marc’s assessments of the meeting, post your feedback, and bookmark The EEB and...

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Why to talk to the media: Turtle edition

Academics are like turtles, pulling their heads in when reporters come knocking. An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has the best metaphor for this syndrome that I’ve heard: Scientists become turtles. They’re discouraged from media relations, and thus never get better at it, and they don’t think it’s their job.  As author Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, puts it: “So whether it’s ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not paid enough,’ faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won’t come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations. It is not hard, really, compared with teaching. It is just different, different enough that turning into a turtle becomes a natural, permanent response.” Munger makes the interesting case that even though reporters sometimes ask bad questions, use quotes that you don’t want them to use, and get the crux of the story wrong, we shouldn’t blame them or question their motives. Instead, we should remember that they are professionals who know their jobs and know what people will find most interesting.  So if a reporter uses your flip comment about stem cells instead of the meaty bit about your research, Munger suggests that you turn the blame on yourself. Ask yourself, he says, “How did I allow the producers to make that choice? Why did they not use what I thought was the best part of the interview?” Obviously this blogger thinks that science communication is a public duty that scientists should engage in. And, as Munger points out, the better you become at it the more fun it will be. What do you think about scientists engaging in media outreach? Is it a worthwhile endeavor that can reach out to the under-informed public, or is it a bother that takes time away from the important things, like research? Read Munger’s five tips for doing press interviews in the Chronicle...

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In defense of the science stimulus

In their Huffington Post blog, Todd Palmer (University of Florida) and Rob Pringle (Stanford/Harvard Fellow) took on Paul Basken of the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, who was interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace.  Palmer and Pringle say that Basken didn’t defend science’s place in the stimulus bill (formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), even going so far as to suggest that the money wouldn’t be spend wisely on jobs or American-made products. The two go on to list reasons why NIH and NSF deserve their collective $13.4 billion. One of the pair’s best points is that most people don’t understand the granting process.  When grants are made to a researcher, that scientist really only receives roughly half of the money they’re granted for their research; the other half goes directly to the university in the form of overhead. Many scientists begrudge this tax on their intellectual successes, but this money keeps institutions afloat.  Just ask anyone who lives in a college town: If the university goes under, that local economy will tank.  So granting money to researchers doesn’t just fund their work, but also funds an industry that keeps administrators, gardeners, construction workers, librarians and the like in their jobs. Read the rest of their defense of stimulus money on The Huffington...

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