Using BioBlitzes as authentic research experiences for undergraduates
Integrating research experiences into undergraduate biology classrooms is an important aspect of the pedagogical improvements outlined in the AAAS Vision and Change Report. Students should be involved in activities that model the actual practice of science so that they develop the skills that will set them up for success in their future science courses and as informed citizens. At Macaulay Honors College – CUNY, students participate in a 24-hour BioBlitz as an opening event for a general science course that is required of our 500 sophomores. The goals of this BioBlitz are to have our students collect meaningful ecological data from our urban habitat and to use those data to conduct a semester-long group research project that models the process of science. At the event, students and scientists work in shifts to identify species in specific taxonomic groups and record data both physically on paper and virtually through iNaturalist. In class, students explore how to ask an empirical question of these data, how to manage ecological data, what statistical analyses are appropriate, and how to communicate clearly to both a public and a scientific audience. We also collect student, scientist, and faculty feedback at the event and in the classroom.
At each of our two BioBlitzes (Central Park and New York Botanical Garden), we documented over 500 species. We confirmed the return of eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) to Central Park and found other species not previously documented in the park. We have found that iNaturalist is an excellent tool for collecting data, but also that paper documentation should accompany it. Between 70-80% of our species never made it to the iNaturalist database, most likely due to the challenge of getting hundreds of students to remember to log their observations. Overall, the responses from students and faculty have been positive. Students like being able to interact with enthusiastic scientists and faculty like the discussions and scientific skills development that the BioBlitz research project provides. With these data, our students performed a variety of ecological analyses (Chi-square analysis of bat activity in different park areas, calculations of Simpson’s Index for bird communities, etc.). Some designed studies to collect even more data (lichen diversity along pollution gradients, impact of human activity on bird counts, student surveys about participating in the BioBlitz itself). Our BioBlitzes have provided valuable experiences for our students where they can fully engage in the process of science.