Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - 9:00 AM

OOS 14-4: Linking mathematical and computational science with ecology education

Louis J. Gross, University of Tennessee


Undergraduate learning environments in mathematics and computation have slowly changed over the past decades, moving away from hand-held calculators towards inclusion of workstations utilizing an array of mathematical software. The majority of life science undergraduates have very little exposure to the capabilities of computational technology to assist in applying quantitative methods to generate hypotheses, collect disparate information across biological, temporal and spatial scales, or model the complex interactions connecting biological systems. Although current life science undergraduates have been using computers their entire life and are adept at many aspects of web-based applications, they generally don't have a clue about the algorithms or codes that underlie the technology. My premise is that effective education of future professional ecologists requires a reconsideration of our expectations in mathematical and computational science, and that a revision of these expectations would benefit all those pursuing undergraduate degrees in the life sciences, not just those going on to professional careers in ecology. 
A primary consideration in undergraduate quantitative ecology education is prioritization of the concepts and skills deemed appropriate to expose students to, require them to utilize in their studies, and use to assess the success of their preparation. Once a prioritized set of concepts and skills are developed, which will vary across institutions, methods to include these within the curriculum are required. Rather than isolating math and computing to a few required courses however, integrating quantitative concepts and skills throughout life science courses is essential. Concept and skill maps that trace the flow and reiteration of these across the various pathways students take through their degree programs will assist in ensuring that all students receive regular opportunities to expand their understanding of quantitative concepts.

A host of recent national reports have reiterated the call in BIO2010 for a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate life science education. Though ecology already has a highly-developed "systems" view, undergraduates rarely have the opportunity to connect their quantitative and biology courses or develop their mathematical and computational intuition to assist their biological intuition. A sea change is coming however, driven in part by the realization that undergraduate preparation of MDs needs revision, leading to an expected change in the MCAT. This presents a unique opportunity for ecology educators to collaborate with colleagues in other areas of biology and incorporate a systems-level perspective throughout the curriculum, integrating appropriate software to empower our undergraduates for the biology of the 21st century.