While national calls for ecological literacy consistently emphasize the importance of understanding ecosystem services (ES) and the human dimension of ecology, ES are not covered in undergraduate ecology textbooks or emphasized in the new K-12 Science Education standards. ES are “a vast array of direct and indirect, market and non-market benefits that humans gain as a result of being embedded within functioning ecosystems, native, or modified” (Ruppert and Duncan, 2017). Producing graduates literate in ES is a wicked problem as it is difficult to 1) define the problem (What are ES learning goals?), 2) solve the problem (How do we teach students about ES?) and 3) know when we have solved the problem (How do we assess students about ES?). This presentation will propose answers for each of these questions grounded in current ecology and education research.
1) All students, citizens and future ecologists, should be able to define ES, provide key examples, evaluate ES claims with data, and predict the impact of disturbances on local and distant ecosystems and human communities. They should know that while it is easy to calculate a value for some ES (e.g., food production), calculating values for others is difficult or impossible due to the complexity of the system or our incomplete knowledge (e.g., material cycling, biodiversity) or the intangible, cultural-based nature of the ES (e.g., recreation, aesthetics). Additionally, future ecologists should be able to collect data and make claims about ES.
2) Key challenges to teaching ES include those described for the other aspects of ecology presented in this symposium along with ES-specific challenges (e.g., ES science is widely interdisciplinary including ecology, economics and social science; students’ conception of ES as only harvestable natural resources and of humans as outside of ecosystems, the need to attempt to define and value complex or intangible ES to be more explicit about tradeoffs). Promising teaching strategies include case study, problem-based, and computer modeling approaches designed to embed students in ecosystem complexity. 3) Concept-only assessments are not sufficient for evaluating if students have met our ES learning goals. We must develop assessments where students can demonstrate competency in collecting data about ES, making and evaluating ES claims, and predicting the impacts of disturbance.