Monday, August 2, 2010

OPS 2-7: Engaging undergraduate students in ecological investigations using online datasets: Understanding West Nile virus as an invasive species

Barbara J. Abraham, Hampton University

Background/Question/Methods This poster presents a data-rich project-based teaching activity in which undergraduates use large-scale public datasets and published ecological research to improve their understanding of the infectious disease caused by West Nile virus (WNV), an invasive species. This topic combines ecology and medicine, which seemed a good way to interest my pre-medical students in ecology. Understanding infectious disease and invasive species are also two of the Grand Challenges of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). For this activity, students use online continental-scale datasets and interactive maps to (1) map and analyze the spread of WNV across the US; (2) determine the risk of WNV in students’ home states or counties during the past and present; (3) correlate environmental variables such as average annual precipitation, land use, and bird species diversity with incidence of WNV in humans, mosquitoes, birds, sentinel flocks, and other animals; and (4) predict the incidence of WNV in students’ home areas under conditions of global warming.
Results/Conclusions The Honors section of my freshman Introductory Biology class (14 students) used an incomplete draft module during the spring 2010 semester. After a class meeting during which they were introduced to the module and some of the web sites, students worked on their own or with a partner from the same state to answer questions using online maps and data sets. A second class meeting brought students together so they could see maps produced by other students and discuss their results to date. After this final meeting, students wrote a report in publishable format in which they were asked to (1) demonstrate understanding of the WNV transmission cycle and the concept of invasive species; (2) discuss the environmental factors affecting the incidence of WNV in general and in their home state or county; and (3) include maps of WNV in their home area since 1999, the first date of WNV in the US, showing incidence of WNV and correlated environmental variables.  The study was in collaboration with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and funded by a grant to the Ecological Society of America (ESA) by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).