Teaching Ecology and Animal Behavior in an Online Setting
The students in my introductory biology class, Organisms & Populations, have told me that they really enjoy my video activities. Providing students with context using research from actual scientists is what brings science to life for them. These are the type of activities that I normally do in an in-seat class with students working in teams and a follow-up formative assessment. However, video activities can be easily translated into dynamic online learning activities that take the place of narrated lectures in an asynchronous online class.
My formula for creating a lesson or unit for an online course consists of choosing a video, identifying three or four major concepts I want students to glean from the video, creating an assessment that elicits student application, and interacting with students via my learning management system. I also post a 3- to 5-minute video that I create describing the interconnectedness of the concepts students are learning.
Below is an example of a two-week series of video activities for an ecology and animal behavior unit. I used this activity series when my introductory biology course was converted from an in-person to an online course due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Week 1: This is my students’ introduction to ecology and animal behavior. The key concepts identified for this lesson are:
- Some ecosystems have top-down regulation, and some have bottom-up regulation.
- Keystone species are essential to maintaining the stability of an ecosystem.
- Ecological research uses experimental design.
The lesson includes the following activities:
- Students review a set of 15 slides describing the major biomes and introductory animal behavior terms such as imprinting and fixed action patterns.
- For their first assignment, students watch the movie The Serengeti Rules. This is an hour-long video, which I typically don’t like to show in class. This fits well in an online format, because it can take the place of a virtual lecture or narrated slideshow, conveying the same concepts but in a more engaging format. I let students know the time commitment for the video they will be watching and how it ties in with our learning outcomes for the course. After watching the movie, students answer the following questions, and then submit responses they recorded while watching the movie to an assessment upload link that I set up through our learning management system:
- Identify three of the ecology researchers from the movie. For each researcher, identify the following:
- The ecosystem they study (location, type of ecosystem/biome)
- The basics of their research (species studied, brief description of the design of the research project and its findings)
- Define top-down regulation and bottom-up regulation.
- Compare and contrast the difference between top-down vs. bottom-up regulation using examples from the movie via a bullet-point list, table, or some other representation.
- Define keystone species. How are keystone species important to their respective ecosystems? Describe an example from the movie.
- For their second assignment, students engage in ethology, the study of natural animal behavior. Ethologists spend time making field observations. The result of these observations is a catalog of behaviors and activities exhibited by an animal, also known as an ethogram. For this project, students conduct independent ethological research observing the behavior of an animal species of their choice (e.g., a family pet) at least two or three times and then construct a basic ethogram. This lets students design a mini ecological research project to apply basic data collection and observational skills, and develop an understanding of the potential role their chosen species plays in their ecosystem. Through this research experience, students are able to scaffold their understanding of these ecological concepts while putting themselves in the shoes of an ecologist.
- I provide students with parameters for their basic ethogram. Students are required to have an introduction to their species and its habitat, results that include a summary of their subject’s behaviors, and an evaluation of the behaviors they observed and suggestions for possible further study.
- For the online course, instead of having each student give a formal presentation, I have them post their ethogram as a blog post that all students in the class can view through our learning management system. To generate discussion, students are required to ask a classmate a meaningful question about their post and answer the questions they receive for their own blog. I then monitor the responses.
- If an ethogram assignment does not fit your schedule, the Click & Learn How Animals Use Sound to Communicate can be used as a replacement. It has an accompanying worksheet that asks students to make observations about various behaviors in elephants, birds, and bats, and relate these to natural selection.
Week 2: This is a continuation of the ecology unit, which focuses on community interactions, including trophic cascades, reinforcement of keystone species, predator-prey interactions, and data analysis. The key concepts identified for this lesson are:
- Keystone species have direct and indirect effects on the population abundance and species diversity of an ecosystem.
- Species interactions affect ecosystems to various extents.
- Many keystone species are apex predators.
- Keystone species play critical roles within an ecosystem.
- Data analysis skills are essential for long-term ecological experiments.
The lesson includes the following activities:
- Students watch the short film Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades, which is conceptually related to the Week 1 film.
- Students complete the accompanying film activity. I have adapted this handout into an online quiz through my university’s learning management system so that students can upload their answers and receive feedback.
- As a final assessment, students complete an online simulation based on Bob Paine’s starfish experiment, which is depicted in both of the videos. I use this as an assessment for this unit because the simulation tests their understanding of the concepts by allowing them to manipulate this same scenario and predict what will happen. After they complete the simulation, there is a corresponding quiz.
- The simulation I use is part of an online virtual laboratory software package that I require for my course. This is an application that my students pay for; however, if this is not feasible for your course, there are other options. These may include having the students work through one of the case studies in the Exploring Trophic Cascades Click & Learn to determine if they can correctly apply the concepts to other scenarios, or using a quiz through your learning management system as an assessment.
I’ve had many students contact me to tell me how much they enjoyed the activities, especially the video activity for the The Serengeti Rules. Students also seemed to really get into creating the ethogram. They actually took it upon themselves to go beyond the information I provided for a basic write-up and presented tables and diagrams in their blog posts. I was happy to see that they took interest in this project and were able to practice their observational skills. In addition, I asked students the following reflection question: “Describe one concept related to ecology that you were not aware of before taking this class. How did it change your thinking?” Students were most often surprised that apex predators were keystone species and by the importance of their role in the ecosystem. Overall, the key is to keep students interested in the topic and show them how the concepts and skills you are sharing with them will be applied to their future work as scientists or scientifically literate citizens.
Melissa Haswell is an associate professor in the science department at Davenport University in Michigan. She teaches science ethics and introductory biology for the biology majors program, and also mentors capstone student projects. In addition, she has been teaching anatomy and physiology, as well as pathophysiology, for pre-nursing students for the last 14 years. Melissa also conducts science education research, which currently focuses on the genetic literacy of nursing students.
If you're interested in using formative assessments in an online setting, this Educator Voices article from Valerie May details how she uses a variety of online tools to assess her students’ understanding of factors that regulate populations.
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