PS 82-90 - Conservation planning in the classroom: Applying project-based pedagogy to promote interdisciplinary learning

Friday, August 12, 2011
Exhibit Hall 3, Austin Convention Center
Julia Michalak, Department of Urban Design and Planning - Urban Ecology Research Lab, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, Joshua J. Lawler, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA and Ken Yocom, Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

The expansion of residential and commercial development in the United States has taken a severe toll on the ecological integrity of our landscapes. Collaboration between urban planners, conservation biologists and policy makers is essential to address this and many other ecological conservation issues. Educators have a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for building future collaboration between policy-makers and scientists by designing and teaching effective interdisciplinary courses. We developed a graduate-level, project-based course to teach students from public policy, urban planning, landscape architecture, and ecology disciplines about the effects of residential and commercial development patterns on living systems. The course objectives were to 1) introduce students to basic concepts from landscape ecology, conservation planning, and land use policy; 2) use project-based learning to illustrate the process of translating ecological knowledge into a spatial plan and 3) connect classroom learning with real-world planning practice. To achieve these objectives, the course was built around a client-driven project to create a wildlife habitat connectivity plan for King County, WA. Students worked in teams to identify a connected habitat network for selected focal species.  Student teams included at least one student with an ecological background and one student with GIS analysis skills.


Project-based learning created an effective environment for teaching students from different disciplinary backgrounds. Students directly experienced the challenges associated with conservation planning including: 1) translating published ecological and expert knowledge into an operational spatial model, 2) struggling with imperfect spatial and species life history data, and 3) using sensitivity analysis to test uncertainty. We learned several valuable lessons for teaching project-based courses linking science and policy. First, course projects should strike a balance between providing a framework for moving through the project and allowing enough flexibility that students can make their own decisions and take ownership over the process. Second, creating teams of students with mixed disciplinary backgrounds helps students learn from each other outside the classroom. Third, models that run quickly can allow students to run multiple iterations and thus test their assumptions and uncertainties about model parameters. Ultimately, the key benefits of project-based courses is the increased level of engagement from both students and faculty and the deep understanding of basic principles that arises from doing rather than simply listening.

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