Bringing data-rich experiences to undergraduate classrooms – ESA Education Scholars pave the way

A guest post by Teresa Mourad, ESA  Director or Education and Diversity Programs with help from Arietta Fleming-Davies of QUBES and Radford University. Gaby Hamerlinck and Kristin Jenkins from QUBES and BioQuest, and Sam Donovan from QUBES and the University of Pittsburgh collaborated on this project.

Undergraduate teaching faculty participants at the Scaling Up - Life Discover Conference in 2016. Credit, Deborah Overath.

Undergraduate teaching faculty participants at the Scaling Up – Life Discover Conference in 2016. Credit, Deborah Overath.

As computational power has expanded and cloud-based analytical tools become more accessible, the science of biology has become more quantitative. Further, more data are publicly available and along with the promise of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON): Big Data will soon be upon us.   Against this backdrop, creating data-rich experiences to prepare students to think like scientists and to involve them in the practice of authentic science is within our reach.

If you are an instructor in an undergraduate course, chances are you face challenges to bringing rich research data into your classroom.  Perhaps your students have no background in statistical analysis, data management or data visualization.  Perhaps you start looking at publicly available datasets but find that close to none are classroom-ready!  Perhaps you simply don’t know where to begin when you need to drill down into data concepts and data assumptions, and other aspects of “messy” data.

The 2016 ESA Education Scholars have demonstrated that it can be done!


How do you go about getting research data into your classroom?

In the fall of 2015, the Ecological Society of America joined with the Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES; to tackle this question in ecology education.  We offered applicants the opportunity to join one of two cooperative mentoring networks:  Scaling Up and Data Discovery. Both operated online over the course of a semester. The Scaling Up group also received travel support for an in-person, one-day workshop at the 2016 Life Discovery – Doing Science Education conference near Baltimore, Md.

We were happily surprised by the demand to bring quantitative methods into undergrad classrooms. From an unexpectedly large pool of 54 applications, 28 faculty participants were selected, representing a diversity of institutional settings, teaching philosophy and data, online and teaching experience (ranging from 1-2 yrs to more than 20 yrs). They came from 25 institutions across the United States: 21 from primarily undergraduate institutions, six from community colleges, and nine from historically black or minority-serving institutions. Seven were underrepresented minorities in science.

The mentor groups worked with one or two modules from ESA’s Teaching Issues in Ecology & Evolution (TIEE) education journal, meeting online from January to May 2016. We chose six modules with the capacity to scale up from populations to communities to global ecosystems. QUBES staff helped participants find and use data resources. Participants helped each other incorporate the modules into their undergraduate course curricula.

Participants implemented the modules in a variety of courses. Some taught introductory biology for majors, others for non-majors. Some taught upper level ecology and others taught courses in applied areas like wildlife management.

What we learned 

From the standpoint of student learning, the most exciting developments from this experience are that 1) it IS possible to bring data-rich activities into the classroom and still accomplish our learning objectives, 2) this can be done at ALL class levels from freshmen to seniors, and 3) no institution is too large or too small to get on board!

Participants who completed all the requirements and shared their comments on EcoEd Digital Library  and on QUBESHub were recognized as ESA Education Scholars.

With support from one another in small working groups, scholars adapted the modules when needed to create a positive data experience for their students.  We are delighted that scholars have posted supplemental materials, adaptations, tips, advice and cautions as products of this project. All of the material and comments can be accessed through the associated TIEE modules on EcoEdDL and on QUBESHub.

Significantly, we found that virtual-only networks may be just as effective without an in-person encounter in supporting faculty towards implementation of quantitative reasoning activities.

In contrast to the conventional one-day workshop at a conference, where participants receive no further support once leaving the meeting,  these online faculty mentoring networks continued to be a source of support while they  implemented new materials in the classroom.

Here’s some of the anecdotal feedback of students’ response according to faculty:

They enjoyed finding their own data and drawing conclusions from the data.

They were excited to see progress and expressed frustrations on the learning curve but triumph when they figured it out (overall). Some thought it was easy and some thought it was beyond their reach, but averages were pretty good.

They were surprised how much high quality data was available online and were excited about learning more statistics to be able to answer the questions that interested them the most.

A New Network for 2017

ESA and QUBES are planning to launch another virtual-only faculty mentoring network in Winter/Spring 2017 and will open applications this fall.

Sign-up to receive timely information when the call for applications opens:

ESA EcoEdList on Google Groups or like the ESA Office of Education and Diversity Programs FaceBook page.

The Ecological Society of America’s office of Education and Diversity Programs has been engaged in promoting data-intensive approaches to ecology education since 2008. These initiatives are intended to help prepare the education community for the anticipated output of the output of the National Ecological Observatory Network.

Funding for the ESA-QUBES Faculty Mentoring Networks was made possible through the National Science Foundation.


Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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