ESA Endorses Four-Dimensional Ecology Education Framework

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By Kenneth Klemow, Alan Berkowitz, Kim Bjorgo-Thorne, Carmen Cid, Jennifer Doherty, Diane Ebert-May, George Middendorf, Bob Pohlad, and Pamela Templer


January 14, 2019


“…ecological issues in this country are intensifying, and many overwhelmingly important ecological problems are now correctly recognized as global in nature. Under these circumstances, it is not responsible for this Society to conduct business as usual. It is foolish and short-sighted to continue the same patterns of activity and outlook just because it feels comfortable and looks right. My thesis tonight is that we must direct our efforts toward increasing ecological literacy, particularly in the public and at the undergraduate level.”

–PG Risser, Address of the Past President, Bull ESA 67(4): 264-70 (1986)



A great milestone for ecology literacy was achieved on November 14, 2018 when ESA’s Governing Board endorsed an undergraduate education framework for the first time in its history. Termed the Four-Dimensional Ecology Education (4DEE) framework, it incorporates three decades of discussion regarding the key learning outcomes to be included in the undergraduate curriculum.

Collectively containing 21 topics or “elements,” the four dimensions include: Core Ecological Concepts (the hierarchy of individuals to the biosphere), Ecology Practices (skills that ecologically literate people should have), Human-Environment interactions, and Cross-Cutting Themes like scale, evolution, and disturbance.

So who should use and benefit from the framework? We see several prospective audiences and potential applications. The framework will be particularly useful to instructors whose undergraduate or graduate training did not include a heavy emphasis in ecology.  We also see the framework as a useful tool for evaluating courses, especially for describing learning objectives and developing assessments.

“As a former dean and provost, I know that colleges and universities are under pressure to describe what their students know and can do with their education,” said Laura Huenneke, ESA President. “This framework will help faculty make a case for ecology programs and help administrators make resource allocation decisions to support those programs.”

Wilkes University students learning how to key out vascular plant species in a bog, and sampling vegetation plots associated with a natural gas pipeline, in northeastern Pennsylvania. Photos courtesy of Kenneth Klemow.


Practitioners of ecology – such as consultants and others seeking certification – can use the framework to guide their professional preparation in the discipline.

The 4DEE framework positions the ESA as a leader in educational programming and professional development, provides opportunities to expand membership and partnerships, and can serve as a foundation for the development of K-12 educational standards

“The 4DEE framework shows what ESA and ecologists should all be doing to proactively showcase ecology in the public schools and undergraduate programs,” said Scott Collins, ESA President 2012-13.

Is the framework intended to be a mandate for teachers and learners of ecology?  In a word – no. The framework is too extensive to be covered in total within a single introductory biology course, or even a single general ecology course. Instead, the framework is intended to serve as a guide that ecology should be taught and learned through multiple dimensions.

So what does that mean in terms of implementation? For an introductory biology course, one might teach a particular topic using a multi-dimensional approach. For example, when teaching about wetlands, an instructor can introduce the concepts of community structure (from Core Concepts), the relationship between structure and function (from Cross-Cutting Themes), the values of wetlands to humans (from Human-Environment Interactions), and the process of wetland delineation (from Ecology Practices). For an introductory ecology course, several topics can be taught following the 4DEE framework.

Luanna Prevost, a biology education researcher at the University of South Florida, is excited about how “the 4DEE framework provides a rallying point for the community of ecology teachers and learners to develop and incorporate best pedagogical practices and assessment.”

In the implementation phase of 4DEE, opportunities will exist for instructors to report on their successes. For example, case studies can be the topic of oral presentations and posters at future ESA meetings. 4DEE-related lesson plans and other activities can be submitted to ESA’s EcoEdDL for peer review and publication.

The endorsement of the 4DEE framework by the ESA’s Governing Board represents a significant forward leap in defining ecological literacy. It will undergo periodic review and refinement in the future, with plans underway to develop a process for doing so. We hope that it gains widespread use and realizes its full potential.


Comments on the 4DEE framework? Please take our survey.



ESA Vice Presidents for Education & Human Resources who have overseen the work of the 4DEE Task Force:

  • Julie Reynolds, Duke University, 2012-2015
  • Nalini Nadkarni, University of Utah, 2015-2018
  • Pamela Templer, Boston University, 2018-2021

Task Force (2014-2019)

  • Alan Berkowitz, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
  • Kim Bjorgo-Thorne, West Virginia Wesleyan College
  • Carmen Cid, Eastern Connecticut State University
  • Jennifer Doherty, University of Washington
  • Ken Klemow, Wilkes University
  • Diane Ebert-May, Michigan State University
  • George Middendorf, Howard University
  • Bob Pohlad, Ferrum College
  • Teresa Mourad, Ecological Society of America