Paul Strode Discusses Collecting Authentic Ecological Data
In my courses, I emphasize scientific communication skills such as thinking, writing, and talking about science, the importance of inferential statistics for analyzing data, and the key differences between scientific hypotheses and predictions students generate.
Students learn the skills of science and benefit from opportunities to move between the scientific problems and questions they confront and the mathematical tools available to answer the questions and solve the problems. Indeed, students learn science best when they are actively engaged in pursuing answers to authentic and relevant questions.
For example, early in each year, I use an outdoor data collection activity to introduce the concepts of species richness and diversity. To prepare students for the fieldwork and related concepts, I break down the history and logic behind the two primary statistical tools ecologists use to quantify species diversity: Simpson’s and Shannon’s diversity indices. With hypothetical data, I first have students learn about and practice the calculations. Once students are comfortable with the concepts of species richness and diversity, they work through the “Biodiversity Studies in Gorongosa” activity from BioInteractive. By this time in the curriculum, students are already familiar with the Gorongosa story from their summer reading of Sean B. Carroll’s book The Serengeti Rules.
Students then launch the field activity where they collect authentic ecological data using pitfall traps while learning some arthropod systematics and practicing their newly acquired quantitative reasoning skills, all within the context of edge effect ecology and habitat conservation. The entire activity reinforces how mathematical models and quantitative reasoning in science can be employed to unpack and characterize biological phenomena, but also how these can be used to generate more questions and design additional data-collection techniques and experiments.
We now have four years of pitfall trap data from the small natural area behind our school, and students can even begin to see trends as well as dramatic shifts in which species are dominant and which species are rare in a given year. These phenomena inspire students to propose hypotheses for what biotic or abiotic factors might vary from year to year and cause variation in arthropod community structure. As a culminating event, student groups coauthor a mock journal article about the investigation. Students use published articles on pitfall trap methods, edge effects, and species diversity as mentor texts after which they model their own writing and paper structure. Details about this entire activity can be found in an article I published with two former students in April of 2019 in the American Biology Teacher:
Prinster, Andrew J., Josephina L. Hoskins, and Paul K. Strode. “Pitfall traps and diversity indices: Using quantitative reasoning to test edge effect theory.” The American Biology Teacher 81, 4 (2019): 234–241. https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.4.234.
Paul Strode lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he teaches AP/IB Biology, Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, and Science Research at Fairview High School. Paul has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Manchester University (IN), a master’s degree in science education from the University of Washington (Seattle), and a PhD in ecology and evolution from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he studied the effects of climate change on the bird-caterpillar-tree canopy trophic cascade.
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