Biodiversity lies at the heart of wicked problems in Ecology. We combine our expertise in ecology and education to grapple with the question of what does every citizen need to know about biodiversity to be able to engage intelligently in a discussion about wicked ecological problems? To focus this discussion, we take the context of infectious disease and propose a set of big ideas about biodiversity and disease: (1) most diseases of humans are zoonotic; (2) this implies human disease risk often arises from species interactions in ecosystems; (3) the identity and life history strategies of species in the community matters to disease transmission, with reservoir hosts tending to be species with fast life history traits; (4) human perturbations can change relative species abundance with the most resilient and common species after disturbance likely to be reservoir hosts; (5) the general observation that biodiversity reduces pathogen transmission suggests diverse ecosystems provide an important ecosystem service.
We relate these ideas to data about student reasoning, which we collected using written (N = 10,187) and interview (N = 238) assessments with middle and high school students in five states. Assessment items included questions about naming and grouping organisms and about structure, function and change in ecological communities.
How prepared are high school graduates to understand these big ideas? Our work indicates (1) the diversity of organisms that students can name is low, making it difficult for them to reason about ecological communities; (2) students rarely see differences in life history strategies among organisms and tend to default to reasoning about organisms as though they have “type 1” survivorship curves. Students who can discuss traits of species are more able to make predictions about ecological change; (3) the majority of students view communities as static archetypes rather than dynamic systems situated within a matrix of other communities.
Our data suggest that it is possible, but rare, for high school students to attain the level of understanding needed to reason about the wicked problem of zoonotic disease emergence. They need support in making observations of diversity and contextualizing those observations. They also need instruction that fosters systems thinking and addresses the complexity and contingency seen in changing ecological communities.