Thursday, August 7, 2008 - 9:00 AM

COS 77-4: Creating ecological dynamics in the classroom through the use of learner-centered teaching activities

Loren B. Byrne, Roger Williams University

Background/Question/Methods A challenge for educators is developing dynamic classrooms and teaching methods that keep students’ attention long enough for them to improve critical thinking skills and achieve deeper understanding of concepts. In ecology, this challenge is compounded by the inherent complexity associated with the discipline’s theories, methods and applied problems. While ecological complexity surely inspires professional ecologists, it may seem daunting to young students (especially non-science majors) and thus inhibit their willingness to engage in the subject. Thus, a critical question facing ecological educators is: How might we teach ecology to students in ways that sustain their interests long enough to facilitate deeper learning? This presentation’s objective is to describe three learner-centered, hands-on teaching activities that I developed to teach ecological principles in introductory majors and non-majors undergraduate courses. The concept of learner-centered teaching reflects that students play an active role in constructing their own knowledge in hands-on (or “minds-on”) activities that require students to ask questions, think critically and reach tangible solutions to the proposed problems.


In the first activity, students “role play” as an assigned organism (or other resource) that must search for a resource (another student) that it would consume. After students pair up in trophic-relationships, they draw their connections within a group-designed food web diagram. The second activity involves an ecosystem-level problem of describing complex biogeochemical cycles. After completing a pre-reading, students work in groups to create a diagram in which they arrange cut-out squares and arrows (that they must label) to illustrate relationships among C or N pools and fluxes. The third activity involves an applied problem of endangered species management and highlights the complexity of human-environment relationships. The problem’s scenario is taken from a real-life court case in which a man killed a cat that was killing endangered birds. In groups, students act as jurors and must debate the issues involved in the case before attempting to reach a consensus about whether to acquit or convict the man (i.e., the problem). Class discussions following each activity can explore many ecological principles but should focus on helping students recognize and appreciate the inherent complexity of ecological science. In this presentation, I will present students’ comments about these activities to support my conclusion that hands-on, learner-centered activities create ecologically dynamic classrooms that foster critical thinking about ecology and thus facilitate students’ development of deeper understanding and appreciation for this complex and important discipline.