How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course

Standard

If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.

  • Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
  • Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
  • Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
  • Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
  • Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
  • Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
  • Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
  • Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.

Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.

Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.

Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.

Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective

Standard

As an antidote to last weeks challenges to teaching ecology, here I’ve collected all the responses to the question: What teaching tools do you find most effective in ecology courses? As before, text in italics is quoted from responses.

It was somewhat heartening to me that the most common effective teaching tool used by ecologists is the outdoors. Field trips were mentioned 55 times as the best way to teach ecology and they are also frequently used in courses.

field trips 2field trips

Now I know that all ecology isn’t field-based but getting outside seems to be a good way to inspire students and getting them thinking about the world around them in a different way. On this general theme, laboratory exercises and hands-on-activities were also frequently mentioned. There were also a couple mentions of using videos as an effective teaching tool and if you are thinking about incorporating videos into your classroom you should stop right now and head over to Dynamic Ecology. There you will find an amazing list complied by Meg Duffy of all sorts of ecology/evolution videos handily categorized by subject. Videos can be also be a way of “getting outside” in courses where this is tough to do by giving real world examples of ecological phenomena.

 A second theme to emerge was “active learning” techniques. Active learning basically refers to any technique that involves a more student-centered approach than straight lectures. In part, the involvement of labs and field exercises for ecology courses and the importance that most place on these activities already adds active learning to an ecology course. However, there was this little gem of a comment to remind us that our job as teachers is to create an integrated course with a purpose to the various activities: Making sure lecture and lab are well integrated. But it also seems that ecologists are finding it useful to break-up or replace lectures with active learning activities like clicker questions, think-pair-share, and the like.

Clickers—some love them, some do not and it seems that most ecologists do not use them. Meg Duffy also has a pair of posts on why she uses clickers in her courses (Part 1 and Part 2) with some links to pedagogy behind them (found in part 1). As you can see below, Meg is quite the maverick in the field (only 12% use clickers sometimes to always) but there is a growing acknowledgment that these kinds of teaching tools can be highly effective for teaching (e.g. this article in Science is behind a paywall but you can listen to the podcast for free). And here’s a glowing account of clickers in science classrooms. Another suggested TopHat, which is a platform where you can use cellphones, computers or tablets instead of buying a particular clicker system. But, of course, it is important to remember that it is all about the questions you ask using clickers and that to be effective these need to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, we are at the stage where most of us aren’t using clickers, so there is not a resource of questions that you can modify for your course.

clickers

I also want to share this anecdote of one person’s experiment with how to change up a lecture. It highlights some of the pluses of engaging students during lecture time—it can be more fun, tell you about where the student’s understanding is at and demonstrate to the students what they do and do not know. As the author suggests, there are probably many ways that this kind of engagement can be involved but the game show style seemed like a fun idea. I find that it’s easy for students to sit in lecture and think they understand a concept without knowing that they don’t really get it. This year I started having 3 students at a time come up to the board and I’d ask them a question (e.g. draw a graph of productivity and how it would be influenced by different levels of disturbance). They could get help from their “fans” behind them (1 student from the left, 1 center and 1 right were chosen so their audience behind them was their fan base) so there wasn’t so much pressure on the selected students up front. It was actually a great way for me to find out what they knew. For instance, the first time I did it I learned that nobody in the class knew how to draw standard error bars… If I had just drawn it, I think they’d all just nod and think “oh yeah, I knew that” but when they were pressured to stand up and do it themselves, even with help from the fans, nobody could do it. It showed me that I had a different expectation of what they knew than what they did know (I just assumed everyone in their Junior year of college would know how to draw standard errors). Later in the class I asked them a density dependent question and they all got it in under 10 seconds – I was so surprised! I thought that one would stump them. I think the same thing can be done with clickers, I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to get clickers to work in my class (and frankly the game-show environment of the 3 contestants up front is sort of a fun way to break up the monotony of a lecture.

In direct contrast, there was the following comment: I have tried lots of alternative techniques but students like straight lecture the best. I think there is a real issue here; whatever the teaching tool or technique you use, you need to make it work for you. We are all different in our teaching styles and there is no one solution fits all. And not to pick on this one commenter, there are a number of potential reasons for this problem. It might be that the teacher likes to lecture best and therefore puts more effort into that activity, stacking the cards for lecturing. Or it might be that they never got training on how to make the alternative techniques they’ve tried effective. Whatever the reason, this comment also made me ponder whether we should care what students like best. Of course it is nice (and sometimes very important) to get back good student evaluations of your teaching and course. However, if we are in the business of teaching and care about it, than we should be more concerned with whether students learn than how much they liked how they were taught.

Discussions can be a useful way to get students thinking about the material and gaging how well it is understood. Think-pair-share is a basic technique where students first think about a question, then discuss with their partner/neighbour and then the results of these discussions are shared with the class. I suspect even the person who commented that they didn’t know what this was, has some idea of it in practice. But even general class discussions were frequently mentioned as useful to teaching ecology.

Flipped classes are an approach where students learn content at home (via video lectures, reading, etc) and do “homework” in the classroom. Class time is then used to interact with the instructor and fellow students, rather than passively listen to lectures. One person answered by saying that they wanted to do this more and it is what I imagine you’d see in Terry’s classes. I plan to do some more of this next spring for my Ecological Methods course. I have been slowly shifting from the lectures that were given in the past in this course to more active techniques, in part because lectures on things like quadrat size and shape tend to be dry for both the students and me.

Ecology is a science, and many suggested that the best way for students to learn is by doing. Everything from reading primary literature to designing experiments to writing proposals to conducting studies/experiments to analyzing data to presenting findings, basically teachable versions of what ‘real’ ecologists do was suggested as a useful way to teach ecology. I hope that every student walks away from their ecology courses at least knowing how scientists study ecology.

Finally, a number of people suggested particular tools or sites that they find useful.

TIEE, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, was brought up twice as an effective teaching tool and I can personally second the use. Last year, I revamped the diversity section of the course I am involved with teaching (Ecological Methods). Instead of using a made-up dataset that had been used in previous years, I tried the lab on diversity in tall grass prairie. Students really appreciated being able to relate the diversity estimates to real data and I think it was a useful way to approach the subject before they collected their own data.

Simulations of ecological processes are an alternative to running labs and field exercises. SimUText got this this endorsement “Love it!” and the associated EcoBeaker was also recommended. Judging from the answers to the question: “What tools would you like to be more available for use in teaching ecology?” cheap affective computer simulations are one of the top requests. Clearly there is a desire to use these tools, especially as resources for courses diminish and lab/field components seem to be under increasing pressure.

Although directed at high school students, one person suggested this site for good activities for non-majors. When I was a TA for a biology major required evolution course, we also used the activity for demonstrating natural selection. So in some contexts these might also work for entry-level majors courses.

And then there was this: chalk (seriously). There is definitely something to be said for writing things out for students to follow your process.

This is a class I would like to attend: I prepare 2-5 slides/lecture about news stories or papers I’ve read since the last lecture that are relevant to the course, to make the point with the students that what they’re learning has relevance to the rest of their lives, and that my goal is to make them educated voters, citizens, taxpayers. A high goal but one I certainly hope that we can achieve through our teaching.

Next week: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

Changing families are behind the decline of field station culture

Standard

The title of this post is more of a working hypothesis than an assertion. I put together a few observations I’ve made over the last month and this idea fell together.

Overall, there has been a steady decline in the pursuit of biological research involving long-term field research that relies upon a deep understanding of natural history. This is a well-recognized phenomenon among ecologists and evolutionary biologists. There are many potential causes, but here is one associated phenomenon:

A great variety of biological field stations throughout North and Central America have experienced a decline in research activity. At least, it seems to me, that many field stations have stagnated or shrunk, while the number of scientists has grown.

I’ve spent time in a variety of field stations, some with long histories that boast tremendous records of scientific productivity and discovery. The scientific progress at these sites was enabled by a culture of long-term scientists who have spent their careers working at particular locations in detail, and by bringing generations of students to work at these sites.

This doesn’t happen so much anymore. This was explained well by Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology.

What nearly all of these stations – with some notable exceptions – are missing is a set of senior researchers who are resident on site for long-term doing their field research. Nowadays, senior researchers don’t typically live at field stations for extended periods. Field stations are places where grad students, and maybe postdocs, work long-term. Undergraduates spend summers at field stations doing research and taking field courses, but at most field stations the faculty aren’t there for too long.

Without the consistent presence of senior researchers field stations do not serve as social and academic hubs like they have in the past. The emergent benefits from the field station as a thriving academic community, located in an active working site for field biologists, have diminished, if not fizzled.

Why has this happened? I think the answer is simple. Field biologists are no longer men whose spouses can stay at home with the kids all summer, or join them in the field to take care of the kids all summer. Decades ago, field stations that housed long-term senior researchers had trailing spouses who cared for all non-scientific matters, or had spouses who stayed at home and didn’t need to work for income.

All of us, regardless of gender, are now expected to support our families with a full combination of income, time, and direct parental care. I cannot be – nor do I want to be – the spouse that goes off to a field station while my spouse is required to tag along, or while my spouse stays at home. Either scenario requires me abdicating my responsibility as a parent. This summer, I’ve been away from my kid for almost a total of a month, over three trips, and that’s too much in my opinion. My situation isn’t different from many other biologists who are also parents, who have spouses who can’t drop everything during the field season.

I think my idea is reinforced, when considering the field stations that have maintained an active culture of long-term senior researchers. I haven’t worked there myself, but I’ve heard a lot about Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL), in southwestern Colorado. There is a large group of senior researchers who live on station full-time during the summer. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that nearly all of the senior researchers that work at RMBL have two parents that are both conducting research on site. So, there may be kids living on station, and these kids have two parents to juggle childcare together. Perhaps there are also senior researchers that have particularly flexible spouses or who are single. This seems to be a relatively unique scenario at RMBL, a special community that serves as home to two-career academic families over the summertime.

Another field station that has long-term senior researchers is Barro Colorado Island (BCI), part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. What makes BCI unique is that the Smithsonian employs many full-time research scientists whose job is to conduct research, often in BCI and the local environs. Other research stations don’t fully pay a big scientific staff to conduct research on site. However, it’s my understanding that the academic environment on BCI has atrophied a bit, with much of the community shifting to the little town of Gamboa, which hosts the launch site for the regular boat to BCI. Because working on BCI is pricier for long-term researchers, and Gamboa offers are more community for families, many researchers set up shop in town and may only occasionally visit BCI. Most of the senior researchers that live in Gamboa for longer periods are employed to work on site full-time. I suspect that senior researchers from universities abroad typically don’t work in Panama for longer periods, because of the same concerns about parenting.

If we want to promote long-term research in the field by senior scientists, then perhaps we could make sure that field biologists marry one another. Perhaps we could sterilize all field biologists.

I don’t have any practical recommendation about how to make sure that senior scientists spend more time in the field, which I do think would be good for science.

The field station where I work, La Selva Biological Station, constructed family housing more than 20 years ago, to accommodate scientists bringing their children. (I made use of this feature this summer for a couple weeks.) However, that can’t get me to live on station for the whole summer. While my kid could come along, my spouse isn’t going to drop her life to watch me at a field station all summer. I’m not going to take my kid away from my spouse for the whole summer and hire someone to care for him while I do science. The family housing can make me stay a little longer, but it can’t work for long periods.

The emergence of field stations in the United States happened during a time when most senior researchers were men who had spouses who handled the non-scientific aspects of their lives. Those times are gone. I don’t lament the change, but it does mean that field stations are less like to become long-term homes to senior scientists.

While I’d love to be at my field station all summer, I love my family infinitely more.

Am I less of a biologist by spending less than the whole summer in the field? Yes, I think that might be the case. However, my short visits to the field station make me more of a parent and more of a spouse. If there has to be a scientist/parent tradeoff, the parent side will always win out.

Note: I am writing this post while teaching a field course on Ants of the Southwest. Two of the course faculty are mothers, with their <2 year-old kids and non-ant spouses joining us on station. This bodes well.

Also, as an aside, here’s another prescription for helping improve the academic culture at field stations: shut off the damn internet between 8pm and 10pm. Lots of smart and interesting people hide with electronic devices when they could be interacting with one another.

Field courses need more units

Standard

Field courses are critical for the development of scientists in a variety of disciplines.

This fact is self-evident to many. For those whom it is not, then Chris Buddle has already written a great post explaining exactly why field courses matter. He also has some top-notch specific tips on how to run your field lab.

In this post, I’m not talking about an outdoor lab section during the semester. I’m thinking of a course that is based somewhere away from the university, in a field location apart from a university. These are immersive experiences, that don’t last a whole semester, but include a semester’s worth of work in a shorter period of time. They are taught in a way similar to how courses in the block system are taught.

It’s getting harder to find these courses within universities. Why is that? I think there are a number of complex intertwined factors. I’d like to single out one of those factors:

At many universities lacking a strong tradition of field courses, students don’t get enough academic credit for their field courses, and faculty don’t get enough credit to teach these courses.

This creates a disincentive for faculty to offer such courses and for students to enroll in them. This isn’t the only reason field courses have experienced atrophy, but I think it’s a big piece.

You might ask, “What atrophy? We have plenty of great field courses at my university over the winter break and in the summer!” I might then, ask you, “How many semester hours of credit go with the courses, relative to the hours of instruction, and how much credit do faculty get towards their annual teaching loads?”

Field courses are often undervalued relative to traditional courses taught within the university. This undervaluation reflects not just the funds allocated towards operating the courses, but also the work of the students and faculty. After chatting with some colleagues at an international field station, I’ve discovered that some of the faculty teaching field courses are working out of generosity, because they’re being undercompensated. Moreover, the students on field courses are participating even though they’re not earning the academic credit that should be associated with their effort on the course. I’ve discovered more often, though, that faculty aren’t teaching field courses because it’s not worth their time, the way that their universities account for their time.

I do realize – and have witnessed – that some field courses could actually be light on academics and hard work, and could amount to a vacation for all people involved. (Taking an undergraduate course traveling throughout Costa Rica is definitely not my kind of vacation.) For a course to receive appropriate credit, it’s only reasonable for there to be some degree of accountability so that everyone involved knows the hours of specific directed academic work that were conducted by the students on the course. However, this entirely point is a red herring because the potential for a no-work vacation-like aspect of courses is independent of the field. Lots of on-campus labs and lecture courses lack rigor, perhaps more often than field courses.

Here’s my relevant anecdote: Just weeks into my first tenure-track position, I put together a new course proposal that I brought to a departmental meeting. The proposal was well-vetted and approved by my chair, who was a lab-oriented scientist. The proposal was for a standard field course in Tropical Biology, in a few sites in Costa Rica, during the university’s January break. The proposal was straightforward, without any hitches, resembled excellent courses with which I was familiar, and followed standard practices. Running an entire class as a field course, with a few pre-departure sessions, was a novelty in my department at the time.

The department thought the course was great. However, they wanted it to be offered as a three-unit course, not as a four-unit course, as I had proposed. I looked at how much time was being spent on the course, how much work was scheduled for the students. I also looked at university guidelines for the hours of instruction and lab activity are supposed to be associated with units.

My proposed four units was a lowball, because the amount of class time and field activities with the course far exceeded a typical 4-unit course, even if the time frame was relatively short. This notion didn’t sway my department from the request that the proposed course run at three units.

Most of my new colleagues simply thought that the duration of the course shouldn’t merit four units. They wanted me to lengthen the course by several days if I wanted a four-unit class. I said if I did that, then I wouldn’t have any time for my own field research, and that also wouldn’t be fair to the students who would be doing much more than 4 units’ worth of work. (Alternatively, I could have organized the course for students to be working fewer hours per day, which I rejected a recipe for mischief, as I’ve seen in other undergraduate course traveling around Costa Rica.)

They asked, what’s my priority? Teaching or research? Do you have a problem with spending all of winter break teaching a four unit course? I thought to myself, I do have a problem if it’s far more than four units worth of work for myself and for the students.

Essentially, my department rejected my argument, not with any specific rebuttal about the value of units or how much work or time was spent on the course. They just didn’t like the idea that students could earn four units over such a short period of time. I think they didn’t realize how much I’d be working the butts off of these students on the course. They didn’t think I’d be running a field course with twelve solid hours of work per day. I’ve seen such courses, and in my view they’re the most successful ones.

I dropped the proposal.

Instead, I resolved to make as many field opportunities as possible for research students.

To date, I have yet to teach my own field course in the tropics, though I often have a very minor role in other courses offered through other institutions. And I am now an instructor on a field course operated by a field station.

I thought my experience in getting mildly shafted on the units was rather unique, but then I was chatting with a variety of people and realized that this limited-units situation might be the norm rather than the outlier. One of my field station buddies just finished teaching a demanding field course this summer. The students just went home.

I asked her if the summer course counted towards her academic year teaching load. She said it did, that the field course counted for half of a regular lecture course.

I saw her course in action. They were traveling around for multiple weeks, and working in earnest 12 hours per day, if not more. Even if you run the numbers so that all activities are considered as a “lab” rather than a “lecture,” then it’s obvious to everyone that the students should be earning a full lecture course credit for the experience, and also that the instructor receives full credit for a teaching a full course. Clearly, from where I sit, this course was far more work, cumulatively, than any normal lecture course during a regular semester. Yet she only got a half-course credit.

She said that she was turned down for full credit for the course, and she taught it anyway. Her circumstance was similar to my own, but the difference is that her students benefited from her decision to sacrifice herself.

I told her I was surprised that she decided to do it. (We’ve never had problems sharing our unsolicited opinions with one another.) If I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t be teaching it again unless everybody involved got appropriate credit. She had wonderful reasons for teaching the course. She provided amazing opportunities to a group of students that she likes and at her university. If she didn’t do it, those opportunities wouldn’t exist. If our job is to inspire and change the lives of our students, then her field course epitomizes her success as a teacher, from what I saw.

I also saw how much time she had put into the experience: far more than any normal course, and for half of the credit. That’s not only unfair, it’s also unsustainable. I can’t imagine anybody sensible person doing a more than a full course’s worth of work for the credit of a half-course on a regular basis.

Why do these field courses not get enough credit from universities? This might be overly simplistic, but I suspect it’s because most faculty – who don’t teach these courses and probably have never taken one – don’t understand them. Perhaps we could invite them along to join one of these courses for a few days and then evaluate if they’re worth the credit. If they’re not willing to invest their own time into sizing it up, then they should be willing to abandon their objections. The understanding of these field courses is inherently experiential.

I don’t know whether, from campus to campus, the problem is more often at the level of the department, the college, or the dreaded and dreadful curriculum committee. Perhaps if students finishing up a course wrote a summary of exactly what they did, and what they learned, and how it fit into the calendar, it would make a difference.

In theory, the numbers should be the numbers. But at some places, the number of hours in lecture and the lab (or field) aren’t enough to satisfy critics, who might find other reasons to oppose full credit, with the tacit bias that fieldwork isn’t as valuable as labwork.

Have any of you helped gain adequate credit for a field course in a system that had undervalued them? Does your university offer strong field courses, and if so, are they accompanied with a robust credit structure for students and faculty?

Tips o’ the hat to Alex Bond, Chris Buddle, and Cat Cardelus for digital or corporeal conversations on the topic.

A field course about ants this summer (some self-promotion)

Standard

Last year, a new field course on ants launched at the Southwestern Research Station, in Portal, AZ, USA called Ants of the Southwest. It got rave reviews, and it’s happening again.  Are you interested in going?

Here’s how to sign up!

The course is designed to provide a generalized hands-on approach to the pragmatics about research with ants. How do you observe and manipulate behavior in the field and in the lab? What kinds of ecological experiments are possible, and how do you do them? How do you collect, identify and maintain a collection of ants? How do you keep colonies in the lab?antsofsw2

There is a diverse set of experienced and talented instructors (in addition, I’ll be there for much of the time).

antsofsw1Don’t mistake this course with the long-running and superb Ant Course run by Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences, which focuses on identification, taxonomy, systematics and building a collection. The Ants of the SW course is a complement to the Ant Course as a different introduction to ant biology, emphasizing ecology and behavior. It’s targeted towards graduate students, but is accessible to folks with other levels of experience.

If you are thinking about using ants as a model system but don’t have years of experience with them, this course would be a great place to figure how to do things, what works and what doesn’t, and will give you the chance to spend time in a community of myrmecologists in a hotbed of ant diversity.

If you have any questions about the course, you can contact me or leave a comments, and of course you can follow the link to the course page and contact the station. I hope to see some of y’all in July!