Using case studies to engage undergraduates in socio-ecological synthesis: Urban biodiversity example
Education in ecology at undergraduate institutions must not focus solely on training students for academic careers but also for environmental management professions. In these careers they will need to utilize transdisciplinary approaches to address difficult natural resources management issues in socio-ecological systems. Urban ecology is an emerging field that represents a great opportunity to engage students in socio-ecological systems. Many undergraduates are drawn to wildlife, biodiversity, and conservation. Educators can use urban wildlife issues to draw students in to explore larger questions about natural resources management in urban landscapes, restoration goals, and balancing ecological and social components of urban ecosystems.
A case study designed through SESYNC’s “Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies 2014” workshop addresses these objectives by putting students in the role of environmental managers charged with protecting species in urban landscapes. In groups, students design a green infrastructure network to conserve one species across parks and natural areas acting as hubs and corridors in a particular geography. They are given a budget limit and must incorporate stakeholder issues into their designs. Groups are then rearranged to contain one member of each original single species groups. The multiple species groups redesign the network to protect all species simultaneously.
The case study was piloted in an ecology course of 21 second-year students at Raritan Valley Community College in fall 2014 using the Jamaica Bay watershed in New York City as the selected geography. Students benefited from a field trip to see restoration projects and parks in Jamaica Bay accompanied by a senior ecologist from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. The students completed the case study in eight three-hour periods plus weekend trip. The structure of the case successfully required the students to balance the sometimes opposing biophysical needs of different species along with stakeholder interests, and in so doing, explore the political, economic, and social realities associated with natural resources management in human dominated landscapes. Groups presented their networks using posters in a gallery walk format. Students submitted group and individual written work to describe their grasp of key concepts from population and landscape ecology, how they applied these concepts to their designs, and their experience dealing with budgetary constraints and stakeholder issues. Future modifications of the case will focus on shortening the amount of class time required, better simulating real-world conditions in management-oriented agencies, and exploring stakeholder issues in more depth.