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What is 4DEE and What Would You Like to Know About It?

ESA Education’s Water Cooler Chat February 5, 2021 

Are you familiar with ESA’s Four-Dimensional Ecological Education Framework? Are you teaching your ecology classes through a Four-Dimensional lens? If not, why not? Perhaps you have ideas of what 4DEE might be in terms of courses, curriculums, and/or assessments, but you aren’t sure where to start?  This page answers your questions and more!  

Guest Hosts: 
Luanna Prevost, University of South Florida 
George Middendorf, Howard University 


Click here to learn about the Four-Dimensional Ecology Education Framework. 

What is 4DEE? 

The framework is made up of four dimensions: Core Ecological Concepts (array of concepts critical to understanding ecology), Ecology Practices (practices to illustrate basic principles of the scientific process), Human-Environment Interaction (bi-directional interrelationship between humans and the Earth’s biota and physical environment) and Cross-Cutting Themes (exploring ecology’s interdisciplinarity).

Brief history of 4DEE 

  • 4DEE is an attempt to put ecology education in a larger context. The effort goes back to the idea of ecoliteracy proposed by ESA President Paul Risser in 1986.  He focused on the need for the public to use ecology in public policy and solving public problems. 
  • The drawing board of 4DEE stemmed from the need1) to integrate ecology into the general biology curriculum, 2) to justify allocation of departmental and university resources for ecologyand 3) respond to the request for guidelines on what ecologists needed to know for professional certification. 
  • In November 2018, the 4DEE Framework was approved and endorsed by ESA’s governing board.  
  • There are 9 current subcommittee members working on the implementation and improvement of 4DEE in the classroom. 

Common Questions and Challenges When Using 4DEE  

  • How have instructors navigated around getting students out in the field if they are teaching remotely or if students live in an area where there is limited access to nature?  
  • How do we assess studentin large class sizes? 
  • How do we bring ecology to nonmajors? 
  • Building in 4DEE across ecology courses from early in the curriculum to later specialty courses. 
  • Challenges finding resources and ideas to use with Spanish speaking students. 

Assessing student’s progress and attitudes in large class sizes has posed a challenge, especially in a remote setting. The 4DEE subcommittee recommends using a multidimensional approach to do assessments and to also do this periodically and in small amounts (see assessment resources below). When changing your assessments, it’s important to recognize that there will likely be pushback and criticism from students and colleaguesTry to make changes to the course based on feedback and assessments over time. 

Another barrier is to make labs accessible to nonmajors taking ecology while also being able to captivate their general interests because they are coming from a diverse academic background. Something to consider when teaching nonmajors is that while they have little interest in ecology, they can add value because they are bringing their knowledge from their primary disciplinesEducators recommend incorporating the human dimension in these courses to help make the subject more relatable to all students regardless of their chosen major. An example of how to use this approach is to center lessons around environmental racism and social justice issues related to the environment. 

How can the human dimension be used in ecology? 

  • It can be extremely useful to teach ecology through using case studies/examples surrounding controversial topics or issues. Common problems in society can be linked to ecology and structuring lessons around these problems can make students from different disciplinary backgrounds more interested and engaged. 

Suggestions to Captivate Students from All Disciplinary Backgrounds 

  • Collect data year to year having students work and compare to last year. (See online virtual labs below). 
  • One example is to try working with horseshoe crabs and connect them to human health studies. 
  • Another idea is to work with civets which are a vector for SARS. This example uses multiple dimensions because it is relatable to current events which can engage all students. 
  • Try integrating the socio-environmental dimensions such as environmental justice and climate justice in all or most of your lessons. 
  • Teach urban farming examples to city dwelling students. 
  • Implement service-learning projects such as planting trees to create buffer zones to help students feel more connected to their community.  
  • Use the 4DEE framework to highlight the various angles to come at ecology e.g. philosophy, ethics, field research, policy, outreach, etc. 
  • Remember the importance of indigenous perspective of Ecology and to include them when possible. 
  • Set the stage for controversy– have the students take different positions and argue those perspectives that aren’t their own, thus giving them a better understanding of those different perspectives and what happens with public policy. 
  • Construct a class or lesson about the making of public policy.

Resources shared during the chat: