One of my favorite aspects of HHMI BioInteractive resources is how they draw students into a story and engage them with real data and on-the-ground science. Within my ecology courses, I use numerous resources to introduce or reinforce concepts throughout the semester, which include the following major topics:
Evolution and selection are the core of the course and are integrated throughout all topics. Two additional themes incorporated through the semester are ecological sampling and biodiversity loss. To cover this much ground and integrate concepts, scaffolding is very important. It allows me to build on fundamental principles throughout the semester, as new ecological concepts are introduced. Therefore, the BioInteractive resources I use often connect major topics to link the material together. These incorporate hands-on learning and multiple modalities, important for the learning students need to fully understand concepts.
BioInteractive’s Lizard resource collection utilizes multiple strategies to support students’ developing a conceptual understanding of the core concepts of evolution, as well as more advanced principles. I use the story of Anolis lizards in the Caribbean in the very first week and again throughout the semester as a touchstone. Students become comfortable with the Anolis story, and I use this to help them relate to new ecological concepts. I can also bridge the natural selection of anoles with the video Scientists at Work: Selection for Tuskless Elephants, which illustrates selection due to human influence.
After evolution and selection, our course moves into a specific section on macroevolution and mass extinctions. Students watch The Origin of Tetrapods (with Student Quiz) before class, using the flipped model. I use this model so we can have in-depth discussions as a class and work on accompanying activities in small groups. After students watch The Origin of Tetrapods, we complete several different activities in class including a discussion, the Great Transitions Click & Learn, and an exercise in applied phylogenetic trees. I also use the Mass Extinctions Click & Learn activity to round out this section.
Once students have completed phylogenetic trees and a discussion of DNA, our course moves into genetics, where students apply Using Genetic Crosses to Analyze a Stickleback Trait in their studies. When we move into population, community, and ecosystem ecology, it is very helpful to pair lecture and lab materials. For example, students do a classroom activity on Analyzing Patterns in the Savanna Landscape before we go into the field to look at tree distributions. Before our bird behavior lab, they complete the How Animals Use Sound to Communicate Click and Learn and watch the Scientist at Work: Studying Elephant Communication video to understand the process of ethology.
My ecology labs, in general, are field-based, and students gather data that are used by other organizations. BioInteractive resources allow my students to conceptualize accuracy and precision in data-gathering before attempting it in the field. The activities also demonstrate the power of proper statistical methods to tell the data’s story.
To help students with concepts in fieldwork early in the course, I use BioInteractive’s elephant resources to teach sampling and natural experiment realities, as well as to open our semester-long discussions on biodiversity loss. Students are naturally drawn to the current plight of the modern African elephant; they want to learn more about the tragedy of poaching and how scientists gather data on elephant population numbers and densities, poacher locations, and which populations are poached. The Survey Methods Click & Learn is done at home, and students return with their worksheet completed. Together, we watch a short video, Scientists at Work: Great Elephant Census, and complete the Great Elephant Census Modeling Activity to appreciate the challenges of surveying organisms in the landscape. This prepares students for what lies ahead and reduces their frustration with fieldwork.
Finally, as previously mentioned, biodiversity loss is threaded throughout the semester. Using many of the modules from the Gorongosa: Using Citizen Science to Study Ecology course, including WildCam, students can apply their understanding of ecosystem and biodiversity concepts. We watch The Guide and have a long discussion at the end of the semester to elucidate conservation and restoration ecology concepts. Students are deeply impressed by the story and are interested in the current status of the park and how they can help the work in Mozambique.
The richness and robustness of BioInteractive resources engage students more than a traditional lecture/lab environment ever could. The storylines and data allow me to easily connect the applications with content. I hope that more ecology educators take advantage of these well-developed and classroom-tested resources for their students, giving majors and nonmajors alike a broader, and deeper, view of the field.
Tara Jo (TJ) Holmberg is a professor of environmental science and biology at Northwestern Connecticut Community College. While she has spent the last 16 years teaching and in leadership roles in higher ed, she is still a student herself and is completing a doctoral degree in environmental studies, focusing on environmental justice issues. TJ spends weekends in scentwork classes with her hound mix, Julius, and managing his surprisingly popular Instagram account.