This project explores how a series of teacher-generated conceptual ecological models can be used to both facilitate and portray the improvement in ecological understanding over the span of a short course. Authentic field research experiences are essential to appropriately understand ecology. Students who participate in the field exercises were significantly better at expressing the organization of ecology concepts, appreciation of importance of abiotic components, and in understanding complex interrelationships. They had concrete, visceral experiences in the ecosystem that could be drawn upon later on their experiences “helped them incorporate new concepts” into their thinking. Practice doing experiments also builds teachers competence and confidence in teaching science using experiments. Successful inquiry teaching required teachers to be both flexible and collaborative. Teachers need to have sufficient practice using inquiry based learning to build up their competence and include it into their teaching practices. Being able to study and interpret ecological interactions is essential towards understanding ecology, but it is not a straightforward process. Appropriate activities, visualizations are needed to help students learn to be attentive to system attributes of complex ecological interactions. Modeling, one visualization tool used in this study, can provide an understanding of indirect effects, feedback loops, and other aspects of complex systems. Teachers took content tests and constructed qualitative conceptual models along with accompanying explanatory essays at two points during their two-week research experience. The essays were paired, scored, and analyzed. Teachers self-assessed their teaching practices at the start of the course and again 10 months later (at the end of the spring term of the following academic year).
There was significant improvement in understanding about relationships between experimental variables, developing appropriate hypotheses, how feedback loops operate, and how new ecological knowledge is generated for two groups. One group showed improvement in understanding about feedback and how new knowledge is generated. Teachers need the opportunity to engage in real world research, coupled with reflective use of qualitative modeling and ongoing collegial discussions to be able to develop deeper understanding and more accurate reasoning about ecological concepts. Teachers increased their confidence in using fieldwork and teaching using field ecology projects (p≤ .05), actually conducted field research experiments with their classes with a duration of at least 2 weeks (p=0.051). Their students showed evidence of improving their ability to demonstrate their understanding about relationships between evidence and conclusions (p=0.016) and to discuss the significance of their findings in class (p=0.028).