Monday, August 2, 2010

OPS 2-6: Engaging undergraduate students in ecological investigations using data: Investigating human impacts on stream ecology locally and nationally

Amelia Nuding and Stephanie Hampton. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis


Students of ecology, particularly at the undergraduate level, often have the opportunity to conduct field experiments and make observations, but less often are they able to connect those concepts to large scale spatial and/or temporal trends. This poster presents a data-rich project-based teaching activity that introduces students to mathematical and quantitative reasoning skills, as well as ecological concepts in stream ecology, through the analysis of large, national data sets on water quality. The data was collected by the US Environmental Protection Agency nationwide, and is accessible by the public through their website. Students will be introduced to stream data analysis through peer-reviewed publications, and they will then perform basic statistics on the EPA datasets using R. They will look at water quality parameters such as total nitrogen and total phosphorus, and correlate water quality conditions with the presence of indicator species Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Tricoptera (EPT) as well as land use practices. Finally, students will compare local and national results, and use interactive mapping tools to deepen the connection between the local and national spatial scales. Student comprehension will be assessed through pre- and post-tests as well as concept mapping and related activity deliverables.


Evidence will be presented that this activity addresses key issues in (1) helping students to understand the effects of water pollution on ecosystems and land use influences, (2) how these evidenced-based understandings are constructed using data and primary literature, and (3) the application of scientific findings to watershed management policy. Moreover, the teaching activity also is designed to help ecology faculty to improve their use of large-scale publicly available data sets and primary literature in a learning progression to enhance students’ ecological thinking and concept acquisition. Faculty understanding will be enhanced in a number of ways: by practitioner research on student’s misconceptions and capacities for quantitative/qualitative reasoning and metacognitive function, by the developmental stages of student mastery of critical ecological concepts and quantitative skills and by the types of assessments that will authentically measure and accelerate students' progress in learning ecology. This project is a part of a collaboration between ESA, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) to improve the understanding and use of ecological knowledge throughout our nation and beyond.