PS 82-94 - Focusing on Nature: Educating about biodiversity, ecology, and conservation using digital photography

Friday, August 12, 2011
Exhibit Hall 3, Austin Convention Center
Dana A. Garrigan, Department of Biology, Carthage College, Kenosha, WI and Laura Rodman Huaracha, Department of Communication and Digital Media, Carthage College, Kenosha, WI

Carthage College’s Focusing on Nature course was designed to engage undergraduates in the process of scientific discovery, to increase appreciation for biodiversity, to promote understanding of ecological concepts, and to raise awareness and understanding of conservation issues through the use of digital photography.  During this interdisciplinary course, students were taught digital photographic technique while focusing their cameras on the natural world.  We predicted that through photography, students would become engaged naturally in the early stages of scientific inquiry – making observations, posing questions about the subjects of their photographs, and constructing hypotheses.  While identifying the organisms in their photographs, students were expected to gain a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of life.  Students were challenged to capture organisms interacting with their environment, both physical and biological, and were awarded prizes for the best photographs depicting adaptations to the physical environment and interactions between species (mutualism, exploitation, competition, etc.).  A final assignment required students to produce a photographic essay on an individually selected theme related to biodiversity, adaptation, ecological interactions, or local conservation issues.  The course has been offered five times, both in southeastern Wisconsin and in the Arizona Sonoran Desert, with traditional aged students (18-22) and adult learners (ages ranging from early 20’s to mid 50’s).


We have found digital photography to be an extremely powerful pedagogical tool for educating students about ecological concepts.  Students in the course demonstrated ecological understanding in the composition of their photographs, in photographic captions, and on exams.  Students reported gaining an increased appreciation for the diversity of organisms at many levels (aesthetic, numeric, as participants in ecological processes, etc.).  Photographic essays demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of organismal interactions with their environment, and of conservation issues ranging from habitat loss to resource depletion.  Photo essays were made available over the internet, and one class produced a hardbound photo book to share their work.  We found that digital photography and sharing work publicly via the internet and other media were effective strategies for stimulating student interest, eliciting curiosity, and motivating high level engagement.  The use of technology seemed particularly effective in stimulating engagement of younger students.  We believe this pedagogical approach can be a model for other interdisciplinary courses or for shorter units in Ecology or Conservation Biology courses.

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