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Genesis of the 4DEE Framework initiative


In his 1986 address to the society as past president, Paul Risser focused on the idea of ecoliteracy and the need by the lay public for “comprehension of selected disciplinary constructs, e.g., terminology and concepts”, particularly for use in making public policy.  He went on to note Yeager’s (1981) three components of scientific literacy: 1) an understanding of key concepts and principles, 2) how scientific ideas are developed, and 3) an understanding of the interaction between science and culture and point out that ecological literacy needs to recognize all three. Answering Risser’s call for enhanced ecological literacy has proven enormously difficult.

Perhaps the most basic step for improving ecological literacy lies in delineating the specific terms and fundamental concepts underlying the discipline.  But that goal has proven elusive.  Over the past three decades ecologists have made numerous attempts to define a commonly set of concepts that represents core ecological knowledge.  Klemow’s (1991) ‘first cut’ recognized that some of the difficulty lies in the very nature of the discipline, e.g. ecology is interdisciplinary, the field is rapidly changing, and one’s understanding of the field is likely to be influenced by the ecologist’s idiosyncratic view. Nonetheless, he posited eleven basic ecological concepts.

Berkowitz and others (1997) ‘call for aid’ in the development of the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education followed Risser’s lead by posing a framework for K-12 ecoliteracy criteria that addressed basic concepts and processes (how science works), knowledge of natural processes and systems (ecological principles), and human processes and systems (human culture and public policy).

Although focused on a theme of sustainability, the 2004 report from the Ecological Visions Committee (Palmer et al. 2004), “Ecological Science and Sustainability for a Crowded Planet: 21st Century Vision and Action Plan for the Ecological Society of America”, recognized and reinforced the need for increased public education, especially to improve interactions among researchers, managers, and decision makers. The report noted specifically that “Ensuring that ecology education provides a foundation for informed decision making will require improved literacy about ecological sustainability among teachers and integration of ecological sustainability into the standards and curricula mandated by countries, states, and provinces.”

Shortly thereafter, Berkowitz et al. (2005) remarked that environmental educators were often split between the underlying science (ecological literacy) and the application to the public sphere (civics literacy), two of Yeager’s (1981) three components. They then examined the role of ecology in environmental education, positing a three-dimensional framework for ecological literacy that focuses on key ecological systems, ecological thinking, and the nature and interface of ecology with society.  Although an apparent goal was to tease out ecological underpinnings of environment science/studies, much of what was presented confounds the two. It is not an uncommon problem and certainly not limited to this paper. In fact, McBride et al. (2013) explicitly note that “the terms environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy have been used in so many different ways and/or are so all-encompassing that they have very little useful meaning”.

More recently, the effort to develop a framework was galvanized by a number of seemingly unconnected events:

In response to the 2009 HHMI “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians”, a number of ESA members (Beck et al. 2012) proposed the need to include ecology in the suggested foundational curriculum, implicitly recognizing the benefit of ecological educational standards.

In 2013 ESA was invited to participate by Course Source, a new online journal seeking to catalog evidence-based teaching resources across undergraduate biology disciplines, to develop a Learning Framework for ecology. This framework was intended to guide authors as well as reviewers of teaching materials of the learning goals and objectives that ESA agreed any undergraduate biological sciences major should know about ecology by graduation ( To achieve this, ESA needed to finalize the development of a society-sanctioned framework for undergraduate ecology education.

A number of other disciplinary professional societies (e.g. American Chemical Society, American Society for Microbiology, National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council) posted society-sanctioned educational guidelines, including the British Ecological Society’s list of “Key Concepts in Ecology”.

In 2014, the ESA Ad hoc Professional Certification Review Committee reported a need for ESA-sanctioned standards that would be applied to ESA’s Professional Certification program.

In response to the above, the ESA Committee on Education and Diversity convened the “Fundamental Ecology Concepts Task Force”in 2014.

The work of the Subcommittee is updated in the Activities section.



American Chemical Society

American Society for Microbiology  – best example

Berkowitz, AR, M Archie, D Simmons. 1997. Defining environmental literacy: a call for action. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 78(2):170-172.  

Bosque Education Guide. 2015. Some Basic Ecological Concepts.  

British Ecological Society. 2015. Key Concepts in Ecology.

Center for Ecoliteracy. 2015. Core Ecological Concepts.

Klemow, KM. Basic ecological literacy: a first cut. 1991. Ecological Society of America Education Section Newsletter 2(1): 4-5.

Knapp, A,  C D’Avanzo. 2010. Teaching with principles: toward more effective pedagogy in ecology. Ecosphere December 2010 v Volume 1(6), Article 15: 1-10.

McBride, B. B., C. A. Brewer, A. R. Berkowitz, and W. T. Borrie. 2013. Environmental literacy, ecological literacy, ecoliteracy: What do we mean and how did we get here? Ecosphere 4(5):67.  

National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council  – undergraduate

Reiners, WA, JA Lockwood, SD Prager, JC Mulroy. 2015. Ecological concepts: what are they, what is their value, and for whom? Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 96(1):64-69.

Risser, PG. 1986. Address of the Past President: Syracuse, New York; August 1986: Ecological Literacy. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 67(4):264-270.