Natural resource management (NRM) decisions have far-reaching implications for global ecological change. Because beliefs influence decisions, individuals’ conceptions of the human-environment relationship will influence their management and research decisions. It is vital that NRM curricula reflect the current disciplinary shift to a more holistic perception of ecosystems, one that includes humans. However, there is a lack of research addressing NRM students’ conceptions of the human-ecosystem relationship. In this study, we explore how students in a natural resource management capstone class retained or modified their conceptions of ecosystems. Our research questions were: 1) how does the way students situate humans in relationship to ecosystems change throughout their capstone course, and 2) what factors influence this change? The analysis was informed by both sociocultural and conceptual change theories. Using a constructivist grounded theory methodology, we studied how students (n=20) described the human/environment relationship and the factors they thought influenced their conceptions through analysis of student-produced documents (180 artifacts in total) and semi-structured interviews (~27 hours transcribed). We also analyzed class components (transcribed lectures, lecture power points, readings, and written assignments) that students identified as influencing conceptual change, to look at what was presented and how it was delivered to the students.
Students’ conceptions of human/ecosystem changed in response to four categories, in order of frequency: 1) semester-long group-based active learning activities, 2) stakeholder interactions, 3) lecture/readings, and 4) collective classroom activities. Some students mentioned multiple aspects of the class as influential, whereas others focused on one component. The diversity of influencing factors was further emphasized by the components of the class that students reported as most and least useful. Students had mixed perceptions of activities in all of the above four categories. Conceptual change is difficult to promote, and has many layers, and students’ backgrounds can affect influencing factors. We report two major findings: 1) Active learning, as others have found, can initiate conceptual change more than traditional lectures and readings; 2) Bringing stakeholders into the classroom to foster direct stakeholder-student interactions can be powerful and promotes conceptual change. Influential stakeholders included experts in NRM-related fields, as well as individuals influenced by management decisions, such as farmers, ranchers, and homeowners. These instructional/curricular strategies allowed students to be exposed to multiple human/ecosystem perceptions as they developed their own conceptions.