Skip to main content

Interdisciplinary Ecology in Practice

ESA Water Cooler Chat ~ October 9th, 2020 

Ecology has never been more interdisciplinary. What does interdisciplinary ecology in practice look like now? What skills have practitioners needed to unlearn or relearn? What skills do students need to develop to move into careers of the future? Bring your favorite beverage to this informal chat with a researcher and a practitioner in the field. 

Scott Franklin, University of Northern Colorado 
Timothy Nuttle, Certified Senior Ecologist, Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc. 

When adopting an interdisciplinary approach to one’s career, a lot can be gained. 

  For example:  

  1. Discovering the importance of integrating various disciplines to suit one’s career interests. 
  2. Facing the most challenging issues with a multitude of solutions. 
  3. The idea of an “interdisciplinary thinker” or the ability to combine disciplines to find more creative ideas. 
  4. Enhance collaboration skills while working with different perspectives. 
  5. Prepare for careers in new and emerging fields.  

There are some fundamental issues arising when discussing Interdisciplinary work and these ideas should be recognized by both students and educators. One of the most important to note is the communication barrier, while this is more prevalent today than it ever has beenNow communication does not necessarily mean specific jargon used, while this is true, jargon between disciplines does vary. The most important issue to recognize is when disciplines communicate their findings with one another. The idea of miscommunication will be a common issue faced in this virtual world we now live in. This Water Cooler chat will speak to some of the main issues and share some solutions/resources from many diverse backgrounds  

What does Interdisciplinary Work Look Like?  

Tim: It’s working with landscape architects, engineers, marketing, HR.  For instance, projects on stream restoration require us to envision what the park might look like, where to buy native trees, how to engage the public.   

I might be involved in “daylighting streams”. This involves clients who must meet regulatory requirements in the Clean Water Act.  So sometimes, the Water and Sewer Authority is a client. There are mitigation banks which offset permitting impacts occurring elsewhere.  

Scott: As a plant ecologist, I work with all the subdisciplines of plant ecology. In teaching, a lot has changed and there is a great focus on student active learning. I am learning new teaching skills and on teaching new skills. For instance, in communications. I co-teach with a science communications specialist. 

How do we define interdisciplinarity? How do we recognize it? How do you know you need an interdisciplinary approach? 

 In the consulting world, there are some things that ecologists are not allowed to do due to permits. We need engineers on projects. The more projects you work on, the more you know what team to put together.    

We also define interdisciplinarity at different SCALES – bat ecologists, or wildlife experts may be pulled in on certain projects. 

It is also true that often, many projects don’t invite ecologists to join their teams. Ecologists are often not involved with park or stream design etc. because they don’t think ecologists have anything to contribute.  Engineers design per specifications but these specifications are often too narrowly defined.  Ecologists offer a certain “ecological mindset to solving engineering problems.  

Ecology is so expansive that we can be interdisciplinary WITHIN the field.  

Artists are often at the center of ecosystem projects – artists bring process, freedom of thought, wide perspective. It was artists who initiated the process and inserted themselves. And now business projects say we need an artist on the team. Ecologists need to do that more. 

Today, indigenous groups are increasingly active. There are plans for co-management of lands that will change the game. 

Challenges in Interdisciplinary Ecology 

  • Attitudinal barriers among disciplines were crossing into an established discipline from another is not always welcome. Or where organizations don’t like to collaborate. Ecologists are not approachable and don’t make our skills or knowledge accessible. 
  • Academic Background also plays a significant factor. No discipline undergoes the same training, creating a challenge when expectations are set.  
  • Teaching for Interdisciplinary careers: Advertise interdisciplinary careers early in education, especially to those who may not recognize the opportunities out there. In the virtual world, new teaching methods must be implemented too, especially the idea of active learning. 
  • Training can be a barrier in terms of time, cost, and narrowing job opportunities. 

Ways to Help Promote Interdisciplinary Ecology 

  • Start with including the idea of interdisciplinary careers early on in high school and undergraduate education. Focus on how concepts can be intertwined among a variety of disciplines. The idea of active learning and discussing shared values can be an excellent way to promote an interdisciplinary mindset. Having students collaborate from a variety of disciplines can hit both areas.  
  • Have practitioners come to speak to students, presenting the variety of options available within certain disciplines. After the presentation has students report back sharing the concepts they have learned. This is also an excellent way to get students exposed to future employers.  
  • Organizations like CitSci, LTER, and SESYNC all contain great resources in accessing interdisciplinary ideas. These are opportunities to get involved in ecology, even if you are not an ecologist. There are more organizations listed below in the resources section.      

Moving Forward… 

Ecology provides a natural context to enter interdisciplinary ways of thinking and practice. starting with educators using more interdisciplinary approaches in their curriculum, and practitioners developing a more open mindset to new opportunities for collaboration.    

Summary of Shared Resources During the Chat  


BIEN for Ecology 

DataOne Community 

Ecological Modelling 

Ecoinformatics Journal 

ESA Ecological Statistics 

Game Commission 



Neon Learning Flexible Projects 






UG Education