Introduction (written for students)

In today’s lab exercise you will conduct a transect, to observe changes in density and abundance of populations, factors, and/or conditions along a socioeconomic gradient in an urban ecosystem. Your transect data will be used to develop an understanding of how environmental conditions vary across city neighborhoods and the relationship between social, economic, and cultural factors and environmental conditions.

As you walk along the street please observe variation in environmental conditions. These might include, but are not limited by any means to:

Using this information, you will develop a description of:

  1. The neighborhood — This should be a kind of "guidebook" to the transect in which you provide a description of what a visitor might expect to see and look for, including any key landmarks and sights—as well as any historical, socio-economic, and cultural differences along the transect.
  2. How the environmental conditions vary spatially along this transect. This section should include a description of:
    1. any environmental problems that you identified,
    2. the local residents you observed,
    3. the likely impact of environmental conditions on residents,
    4. if there is a need for public policy to address any of the environmental problems,
    5. the stakeholders and groups likely to be involved in the public, decision-making process, and
    6. the role of ecological research data in informing and guiding the decision-making process.


Materials and Methods (written for faculty)

Study Site(s):

The transect runs just south of the Howard University campus, along T Street, Washington, DC for approximately 25 blocks from 4th Street (LeDroit Park) NE to 20th Street NW (Dupont Circle). (Map from MapQuest)

The ends of the transect are in two socio-economically, culturally, and racially distinct communities. LeDroit Park, on the east, was created in the late 1800s as an exclusively European-American neighborhood. In the 1940s, it became a mixed middle-class African-American neighborhood, especially following the abolition of racial covenants (legal restrictions that racially restrict the sale of property and that had prevented black residents from owning houses in some neighborhoods). Currently, the area is in a state of flux and while it remains largely African-American, there has been an increase in the number of economically advantaged and non-African-American residents. Dupont Circle, on the western end, began as a racially mixed neighborhood of many upper class African-Americans and European immigrants, although African-American residents were restricted to the northeast section of the Dupont Circle area. Over time, the area has become majority European-American neighborhood.

The Columbia, MO transect runs follows Garth Avenue for a similar distance from the its start in the Old Stewart Road neighborhood, an upper income predominately European-American neighborhood, to the intersection of Garth and Business 63 in the Ridgeway neighborhood, a lower income neighborhood dominated by rental housing and a mix of European-American and African-American residents. (Map from MapQuest)

Overview of Data Collection and Analysis Methods:

  1. Single lab period format: The class is divided into groups of 4-5 with each student assigned a responsibility (recorder, reporter, etc.). We leave the classroom, walk to the east end of the transect along T Street. Along the way the instructor joins up with each of the groups to see what observations they are making, provide input, and answer any questions they might have. The groups do not collect data at this time, but take notes. When we reach the end of the transect (usually about 12 blocks, although this varies according to time), each group discusses their observations and decides on the type and method for data collection on the return trip back to the starting point. Each group then makes a short (2-3 min) presentation to the other students. While we do this very informally, standing on the sidewalk, students are expected to provide suggestions to improve data collection and analysis. Alternative approaches could involve 1) pairing groups for discussions, exchanges, and suggestions and 2) pairing groups and asking each to report the other group’s methods (an interesting twist suggested by a reviewer that would demand clear presentation and understanding). Following the return walk with data collection, each group writes a short (~5 page) paper in which they present their hypothesis, a summary and analysis of their data, and draw appropriate conclusions.
  2. While this exercise can be done in a single week, we have found a multi-week format to be more satisfying.
    • Week 1: In this version, student groups make notes on both directions of the walk and then meet back in the lab for short discussions and presentations (see “Single lab period format” above for a general description). We then have them locate appropriate literature concerning urban ecology and write a short paper in which they develop their hypotheses about the environmental differences and propose methods to test the hypotheses, e.g., what data will be collected and how it will be analyzed.
    • Week 2: Groups walk the transect (either during the “lab” period or independently), collecting data in a more ecologically and environmentally focused manner. Examples of typical group data includes: 1) identification, measurement, and determination of the condition of street trees, 2) estimation of bird or insect biodiversity, and 3) determination of the amount and types of greenspaces (tree boxes, lawns, schoolyards, and parks). Given differences in group foci, we have found it advantageous to allow them to schedule their walks in Week 2 independently of the lab period.
    • Week 3: We meet in the regular lab period for group discussions of data and analysis. At the end of the period each group makes a short (~10 min) presentation of the literature they have located, along with their data, analysis, and results. Members of the other groups are expected to provide constructive criticism.
    • Week 4: Following 15 min, group presentations to the class (PowerPoint is the standard method), the groups submit their papers which (because of the greater time and emphasis on the exercise) are generally 0-15 pages. These follow standard scientific research paper format (e.g., abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and bibliography) and because students have been exposed to the format in earlier exercises, our expectations are fairly high and the grading is rigorous.


Report Format

Regardless of whether the exercise follows a single or multi-week format, all students participate in the writing of a group, research-style paper. We discuss with the students what should and should not be included in each section and provide handouts (or post information online) on how to write scientific research papers. We encourage the students to write the paper using guidelines for peer-reviewed journals and have found the guidelines for “From the Field” submissions to Wildlife Society Bulletin (http://www.wildlife.org/publications/bulletinguidelines.pdf) to be particularly helpful because of the emphasis on communicating ideas and concepts in a short paper format. The students are required to work collaboratively on the papers and to evaluate one another’s contributions to the group product (see rubric below). We encourage student editing of papers prior to submission noting that this increases the paper quality and reduces instructor workload (Gass 2002).

Student group research papers are structured according to the following criteria:



Questions for Further Thought and Discussion

We have found the following questions useful during the walk:

  1. What have you noticed about the conditions of the sidewalk, tree boxes, yards, lawns, and houses as you’ve walked along the transect?
  2. What differences have you observed concerning the residents along the transect?
  3. What do you know about the history of the neighborhood through which we are walking? Students often know much more than you think about the area!
  4. Have you noticed any security signs posted in front of the houses? Are there differences in the number of mailboxes are associated with each house?
  5. Have you noticed any variation in the species of trees planted in the tree boxes?
  6. If there are gardens, you can ask the groups about variety of species planted.

Each question invariably leads into a follow-up discussion. For instance, environmental observations regarding mailboxes may lead to consideration of the numbers of residents per unit, and whether the residence should be classified as serving unrelated individuals, a single-family, or a multiple family unit. This may then lead to consideration of neighborhood population demographics, then to whether or not residents are owners or renters, and then to issues of civic responsibility. Be aware that not all aspects of the discussion may be comfortable!

At the completion of the group presentations we ask the class to describe the environmental differences they observed and whether these are related in any way to neighborhood differences. If they note differential impacts of environmental conditions on local residents (and they should have since you located the transect so that they would), ask them to posit how public policy could be developed to address environmental problems, the stakeholders, and groups likely to be involved in the process, and the role of ecology in informing the decision-making process.



References and Links

(Note: To facilitate student understanding of the urban environment we usually provide some basic references. This list includes examples for a variety of cities, but you may wish to locate more specific, appropriate, relevant references for your city.)



Tools for Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes

We use the following two rubrics for assessing group performance and student contribution to the group effort. We like to ask students to assess group performance at all stages of the exercise so that we can identify issues before they become problems. We do not use it to differentially distribute credit for grading! The third tool provided is a questionnaire which we have developed to provide some information concerning the student background and to assess attitude changes. Both parts should be administered prior to the exercise and, at some point following completion, Part B should be administered.



Tools for Formative Evaluation of this Experiment

We address the question, “What is the evidence that the activities students perform in lab enable them to attain the objectives of the lab?” in three ways.

  1. When the lab is a portion of the semester long assignment we evaluate the success of the project by reviewing the papers and presentations presented by each group. Evaluation, based on the rubric, allows us to examine the hypotheses and determine whether they are reasonable and testable. We can assess whether the data collected is sufficient and presented well, the students have examined “outside” literature, they have incorporated their results into a framework that indicates that they recognize the role of ecology in assessing the environment, and they recognize the interplay of humans and the environment. Often there are great differences in the methods, results, and interpretation among groups and it is critical that the product of each group be assessed independently from those of other groups.
  2. We also use a pre / post lab assessment of students’ understanding of sampling methods and methods of describing and classifying site features. At the University of Missouri-Columbia this assessment is done as part of the review / resubmission process for a semester-long project.
  3. To examine changes in student attitudes as a result of participating in the exercise we have developed a pre and post questionnaire that allows for some measure of change in knowledge and attitudes concerning urban ecosystems and environmental justice.

NOTE: An extensive discussion on Evaluation appears in the Teaching section of this site.