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2011 Webinar

2011 Webinar:Using Web-Accessible Large Ecological Data Sets for Student-Active Learning: Models, 0pportunities & Challenges

Thursday, April 14, 2011, 3:00 pm ET, 75 minutes

This webinar was brought to you through a partnership between ESA, the Science and Engineering Alliance (SEA), and NEON Inc. with support from the National Science Foundation.


Student-active approaches to teaching ecology that involve collecting and analyzing data typically focus on data that can be conveniently collected within a semester at a location on or near a college campus. However, many of the most interesting topics in ecology involve patterns and processes that occur on much larger geographic or longer time scales. To teach undergraduate ecology in the 21st century, there is a clear need for student-active projects using high-quality data that have been collected at appropriately large spatial scales or over long time periods. Fortunately, the ‘ecoinformatics’ revolution is making an incredible diversity and quantity of ecological data publically-available in digital archives on the internet. Under the direction of NEON Inc., NCEAS, and ESA, a working-group of undergraduate ecology instructors has been collaborating to develop and test new student-active exercises that use internet-accessible continental-scale data.

In this webinar, Dr. Tom Langen will provide an orientation to some of the major data archives and original data sources that can be exploited for interesting undergraduate ecological exercises. He will provide an overview of the successes and challenges that he and his colleagues in the working group have had in developing and testing model exercises in the classroom. Dr. Langen will present in detail one exercise that he has developed and tested (Drivers of Avian Local Species Richness: Continental-Scale Gradients, Regional Landscape, or Local Land Cover?), and discuss how it can be adapted to the webinar participants’ classes. He will then make some summary suggestions on how webinar participants can develop their own exercises using publicly-available data, and the potential challenges they should anticipate. [more..]

Associated Resources

Material develop by Tom Langen on pedagogy with large-scale data with an annotated list of resources. (PDF 194 KB)

Several peer-reviewed teaching modules developed by our participants are now published and in review at Teaching Issues & Experiments in Ecology (TIEE,, an ESA online publication of peer-reviewed educational resources.

Additional information on this webinar can be found on

About the presenter

Tom Langen is an Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Clarkson University, a small, private, primarily-undergraduate institution. At Clarkson, Dr. Langen teaches courses on animal behavior, ecology, conservation biology, and global environmental change. He has been a Director of an REU Site Program in Environmental Science & Engineering, and is currently a Co-Director of an NSF-funded Undergraduate Bio-Math Program. He has taught courses on tropical ecology and conservation in Costa Rica for North American undergraduates, graduate students, and K-12 teachers, and for Latin American graduate students. His current research is on managing the environmental impact of roads, and on the effectiveness of wetland restoration projects for restoring biodiversity and ecosystem services. He leads professional development workshops in Latin America and North America on the environmental impact of roads and other infrastructure. Dr. Langen’s pedagogical interests include how to best apply problem-based learning and inquiry approaches to improve teaching in ecology and conservation biology, and how to design undergraduate summer research internship programs to best achieve program objectives.

Detailed Description

Ecology is undergoing an ‘ecoinformatics’ revolution. There is an enormous quantity and diversity of ecological data that is publicly accessible to anyone over the internet, and other applications such as GoogleEarth that can aid in ecological investigations. The data trove will continue to grow exponentially, as new remote sensing projects such as NEON begin streaming data, and as funding agencies and professional societies such as the Ecological Society of America require researchers to archive their core data sets in a publically accessible and interpretable format.

Can undergraduate ecology instructors exploit this rich trove of data for student-active approaches to teaching ecology? This webinar will begin with a discussion of the opportunities for improving content knowledge, conceptual understanding, and research process skills in ecology. We will focus on what kinds of topics may be better taught using activities based around these data sets than traditional lab and field project activities. We will also consider the opportunities that activities based on these data provide to institutions that are lacking in equipment or convenient access for field ecology activities, and for students that have physical challenges that limit field activities. We will further consider how activities that cause students to be become familiar at finding and using online ecological data sources can better prepare them for the discipline of ecology in the 21st century.

Next, participants in the webinar will visit some of the major sources of ecological data online. We will cover the challenges of learning how to navigate sites, the purpose of metadata to evaluate a data source, and issues to consider when having students explore and use these data sources.

We will then turn to how teaching activities that are interesting and fun for students can be developed using these data sources in creative ways. We will consider a continuum of student-active approaches, from highly-structured to open inquiry. As examples, we will look at several activities developed by a working group of undergraduate ecology educators. These activities, which will be distributed to webinar participants, provide a set of tested models for how to use ecoinformatics data sets in undergraduate teaching. We will go through the structure of these activities, discuss some tips to improving student performance and learning, and learn some of the successes and challenges that working group members have faced in implementing these activities.

Upon completion of this webinar, participants will

  1. better understand how ecoinformatics data sets can be used to improve undergraduate ecology education,
  2. be able to locate and navigate some major online ecoinformatics data sources,
  3. have some tested templates of activities using online ecoinformatics data,
  4. and

  5. know how to successfully design and implement their own activities using these data sources.

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