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Bringing Ecology Home

ESA Water Cooler Chat ~ May 29, 2020

It’s all we’ve been thinking about these past three months. No question. This Fall is going to be different.

  • Can students do ecology during shelter-in-place?
  • How can the transformative attributes of field experiences transfer online?
  • How will we know that transformation occurred

We’re building a community to work together to adapt to the new normal!

Hosted by:

George Middendorf, George Middendorf, Howard University
Bruce Grant, Widener University
Gretchen Lebuhn, San Francisco State University

Slides from the hosts can be found here.


Bringing Ecology Home

Due to Covid-19, many field and lab-based courses that would normally have occurred had to transition to online. Many instructors relied on videos for the transition, while some still tried to teach “virtual field ecology.” Some courses ended up having integrity issues, while others ended up being cancelled all-together. Due to the expensive nature of kits and equipment, one concern was how the classes will adjust during the fall as the classes might stay virtual.


Framework to maximize virtual field lab experience with connection to students’ home grounds. 

 Despite the many useful tools and tricks, the importance of field labs should not be forgottenOne of the crucial pitfalls is to set up virtual labs as a series of activities. The key is not simply providing students with things to do. Rather, we want to focus on developing the mindset of doing ecology – which can now include their homes, and neighborhoods – and then connect to regional or national datasetsConnecting students to the flora and fauna in their neighborhoods/backyards can encourage a sense of place, regarding where they live. One way to stimulate an appreciation for an ecological mindset is to start with a fifty questions activity: send students outside to make observations and task the students to generate the science questions 

 Data sets are good and useful, but students inherently need field skills. Otherwise, students might end up using only their superficial initial knowledge without realizing they are doing so.  Incorporating ecology-at-home approaches mitigates against total reliance on virtual tools. This type of experience will help students develop crucial analysis skills, as well as offer opportunities for broad-scale collaboration across classes.


 Ideas on how to Teach Virtual Labs 


Guidance/ideas/tips on how to do labs from home 

  •  Shipping affordable lab resources such as seeds, soil and pots, directly to students 
  • If not all students have access to green spaces, consider pairing studentsThose who have access can go out in their own backyard and can share what they observe to their lab mates who may not have access. This will serve as starting point to launch a common investigation within a particular lab exercise. 
  • Create videos demonstrating how to do some of the techniques for each lab. 
  • Students can learn many skills on their own with support. The support might be a field guide to wildflowers accompanied by some videos, and followed by discussion sections that help them share and resolve difficulties. 
  • Consider trying these affordable clip-on microscopes that attach to smart phones while teaching a lab.


The Problem of Getting Equipment to Students  

 Ornithology is a good example to look at, due to its requiring of expensive equipment, such as binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes. Some possible solutions have included: 

  • Try reaching out to local observatory centers (or educational outdoor centers) to see if they willing to donate old binoculars.   
  • The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory has been donating many of their unused and older binoculars.  
  • Consider teaching students to identify birds through songs using the eBird app. 


Health and safety when doing field work alone 

With students working on their own, there are issues of health, liability, and safety. Aquatic field work in particular is a major concern.  


Other Resources: 

Four Dimensional Ecology Education (4DEE) is an undergraduate education framework, which would help the undergraduate curriculum by incorporating three decades of discussion.  

The EcoEd Digital Library (EcoEdDL) is a platform for scientists and educators to locate and contribute peer reviewed resources for 21st century undergraduate ecology education. 

Anecdata designs data and shares observations.  

Project EDDIE (Environmental Data-Driven Inquiry and Exploration) is a suite of education projects composed of STEM disciplinary and educational researchers. We develop flexible classroom teaching modules using large, publicly available datasets to engage students in STEM and improve their quantitative reasoning.  

QUBES provides logistical, intellectual, and community support for innovative quantitative biology education projects and the extended community of instructors seeking resources.  

iDigBio makes data and images of millions of biological specimens available on the web.  

The USA National Phenology Network supports science, natural resource management, and communication by providing data, tools, and resources and by connecting people. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) 

iNaturalist records observations, shares with fellow naturalists, and discusses findings.  

Wild Life of Our Homes  examines the diversity of bacterial communities found in nine distinct locations within our homes and provides the first comprehensive analysis of the microbial communities found in the home and the factors that shape the structure of these communities both within and between homes.  

EJSCREEN (Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool) is a new environmental justice (EJ) mapping and screening tool based on nationally consistent data and an approach that combines environmental and demographic indicators in maps and reports.  

Squirrel-Net is trying to establish long-term datasets on sciurids from diverse habitats associated with college campuses across North America with standardized protocols, while simultaneously providing CUREs to students in the biological sciences.  

The Great Sunflower Project has people all over the country are collecting data on pollinators in their yards, gardens, schools and parks.  

 Slack is a type of chat room that replaces email to make communications easier.   


 Studies and Articles: 

Having access to working in the field will help lower the number of underrepresented students who might switch majors or drop out of college all together.  “Field courses boost STEM diversity, study finds” : 

 “Crosstown Walk Goes Global: Reflections From a Recent UrBioNet Workshop” by Pippin Anderson, Cape Town (23 February 2016): 


Middendorf, G, C Nilon. 2005. An environmental crosstown walk to assess environmental changes along an urban socioeconomic gradient. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology. Vol. 3: Experiment #3 

Pool, M, R Boateng, AAko-Adounvo, R Allen-McFarlane, D Elizondo, H Paturault, H Alhawas, G Middendorf.  2016. Sloths in the city: unexpectedly high density of pale-throated three-toed sloths (Bradypus tridactylus) found in an urban forest patch in Paramaribo, Suriname. Edentata 17: 25-33 

Books and Journals: 

How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook- Second Edition by Richard Karban, Mikaela Huntzinger, and Ian S. Pearse.  

American Museum of Natural History’s Lessons in Conservation is the official journal of the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP).