What ecology labs do you remember from when you were a student?

When I visited the University of Maine recently, Brian and I started talking about ecology labs, and I immediately rattled off some of the ones I remembered from when I was an undergrad. I’ve never taught a lab course myself, but clearly the ones I took as an undergrad had a big impression on me. So it was funny timing that, shortly after I got back, we were contacted by Eva Dettweiler-Robinson, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico. She and Jenn Rudgers are working to redesign a lab course related to ecology, evolution, and the diversity of life.* They want to know: “What lab activities from your introductory undergraduate Ecology or Evolution courses were the most memorable?” The general idea is that, if you can remember a specific lab you did 5, 10, 15, 20+ years after taking the course, it was probably an engaging lab.

So, what specific ecology and evolution labs do you still remember?

Here are the top ones for me:

Cemetery Demography: This is lab I still remember the most and that was the first thing I brought up when talking to Brian. I think this is a standard one that is done lots of places. (I see that there’s a TIEE article on it.) I loved it and if I ever teach an ecology lab, I would use it.

Goldenrod galls: I don’t actually remember the specifics of what we did with this lab. But part of why I remember it is because we did it at the same field sites where Dick Root did his goldenrod research. Knowing that we were doing things that were related to actual science that was ongoing – and not something that was just a canned exercise – was really neat.

Field Ecology trips with Peter Marks: This isn’t a specific lab activity, but a highlight of my undergraduate coursework was taking Field Ecology from Peter Marks. Going outside with someone who is such an amazing natural historian was so much fun and so eye-opening. I remember specific field trips to an old growth forest plot near Ithaca, and a weekend trip to the Cary Institute. I took the course in my last semester at Cornell, since I was a bit slow to realize I wanted to be an ecologist. An advantage to this is that, since most of the other students were sophomores, they were still kind of intimidated by faculty. So, the spot in the front passenger seat of the van Peter drove was always open. I sat there on every trip, and still remember things like him pointing out Ailanthus growing on the side of the road, talking about the possibility of roadsides as habitats that facilitate invasions.

Foraging for beans: I don’t recall this very well, but I remember that we had a lab where we had to pick beans out of grass. But I don’t remember what the point was! There was a similar evolution lab activity, though, where we had to pick up beans with different “appendages” (a spoon, fork, chopsticks, etc.) There were timed foraging rounds, and then individuals could “reproduce” based on how many beans they’d collected.

Wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone: This was a discussion activity, rather than a lab, but given how well I remember it, I figured I’d include it anyway. The class was split into different stakeholder groups related to the question of whether wolves should be reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. I don’t remember all the groups, but I know that some people were supposed to be government scientists and some ranchers. I was supposed to represent Defenders of Wildlife, which is a conservation non-profit. I found the exercise really interesting, and it definitely drove home the point that it can be really tricky to balance the needs of different interest groups when making conservation decisions.

What ecology and evolution labs do you remember from when you were a student? If you’d rather tweet your reply, use the hashtag #ecoevolabs.


* We generally don’t write posts on request, but this one was so up my alley that I was excited to run with it.

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25 thoughts on “What ecology labs do you remember from when you were a student?

  1. In intro E&E, the class did a phylogeny lab using cytochrome c to assess the (at the time) new classification of inverts into ecdysozoa and lophotrochozoa. At the time I thought it was awesome because it was pitched as a chance to answer a current controversy in the literature, though I now suspect it was actually carefully organized so we would at least get a clear answer one way or the other. I don’t remember much about the details of that one, but it was my first gel and I tacked the photo onto the wall of my dorm for the rest of the year. (nerd alert if there ever was one) We also used small floating plants to study competition – set up cultures with one or two species and measured population growth rates over several weeks.

    We also had a couple chances in that class to design our own experiments in the lab and the field within the purview of a unit (eg we had to do an optimal foraging experiment, but the variables we tested were up to us to decide).

    In my biostats class, we did a lab that is memorable mostly because it meant snowshoeing in the woods and collecting soil cores in frozen ground using a sledgehammer. I think we then counted the stuff living in the soil cores and did stats on the data for a few weeks.

    Spring semester in upstate NY is difficult for field courses. Another very memorable lab was the upper-division ecology lab where we went out onto a frozen lake in thigh-deep snow and took plankton samples. We then had to sort through them in the lab, though I don’t remember what the overall question was.

    • That’s great that you had the gel on your wall all year!

      Many limnology courses have traditionally been taught in winter, since it’s easier to take a bunch of students out on (thick) ice than to deal with boats. But, prior to the past two (cold) winters, there were several winters where it wasn’t warm enough to take students out. Some people have shifted to teaching in the fall, and I know others who are considering it. (It amazes me that global climate change is affecting course catalogs!)

  2. Hi Meg,

    My ecology prof got her PhD at Cornell, and she must’ve taught us some of the same labs she TAed as a grad student. I can’t think of any other explanation for why you and I would’ve had some of the same labs! Well, cemetery demography’s a pretty common one. But surely not everybody out there does foraging for beans. That’s the undergrad lab I remember being the most fun. To jog your memory, it was an eco-evolutionary lab (or, you could think of it as a predator-prey dynamics lab with several asexual prey and predator species). We scattered jelly beans (“prey”) of different colors in a lawn, and foraged for them with plastic utensils. Every “generation”, we’d give the captured “prey” to the TA. Based on who’d captured what, the TA would use a model (which wasn’t revealed to us) to calculate changes in the abundance of different jelly bean colors in the next generation, and changes in the abundance of different predators (utensils). So some students would have to switch utensils every generation, as some predOver time, the green and especially the brown jelly beans increased in relative abundance at the expense of other colors, because they were hard to see. And plastic knives plummeted in relative abundance, replaced by forks and especially spoons.

  3. As an instructor, it’s kind of sobering that the post and a good chunk of the comments so far are along the lines of “Oh, that was such a great lab, but I don’t remember any details or even what the point was!” And we’re ecologists–you’d think we of all people would remember something about our ecology labs!

    I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t bother to have labs, or that we should teach labs differently in a futile attempt to have every student remember every (or any!) detail for the rest of their lives. But the fact that even the most “memorable” labs aren’t actually very memorable does make you think about what students get out of our labs, and what we should want them to get out of them.

    • This doesn’t bother me, really. When I teach, one of my main goals is to convince students that ecology is interesting and fun, so I would say the labs achieved that goal! Obviously I want them to learn concepts, too, and I think the labs did help me learn concepts. I don’t fault the labs for me not fully retaining the concepts ~17 years later.

      • I agree with Meg here. A lot of these major concepts I learned very slowly through lots of repetition, and labs help with those even if I can’t remember a decade later what method we used to build a phylogeny.

        I don’t think the point of having students forage for jellybeans is ever to have them remember in one or ten years whether forks, spoons, or knives were most useful. It’s to understand natural selection using an activity rather than a lecture. So in order to see if it was worthwhile, you’d want to actually run the experiment on two groups of students taught in two different ways, and see what the retention levels are about the concept in question. (Perhaps such a test exists of this exact lab in the science ed literature, but I don’t know.)

        I think there’s two levels of memory to be concerned with here: the ‘cool’ labs that stood out for whatever reason (cold weather? candy? live animals? boats?), and how well the scientific concepts were retained, which is probably the goal of the instructor.

    • My most memorable labs tended to be the ones the professor was most excited about. Her enthusiasm/passion for what we were talking about that day really determined how engaged I was, which likely determined how memorable that lab is to me now. The things the “stuck” may not have been what she intended to stick, but it sparked my curiosity.

  4. Add me to the list for foraging for beans (totally different lineage for the teachers). It is to teach optimal foraging. The all or nothing inclusion, inclusion based on profitability, etc all can be brought in. Doing it with a mixture of candy bars gets much more buy in than beans, especially if the students are allowed to eat them at the end!

    Still in optimal foraging, I’ve never heard of anybody do it, but I always thought the original experiments Hollings reports on type II funcitonal responses of predator prey would make a great lab. He had blindfolded students searching for discs of sandpaper on a table.

    The all time favorite lab in my TA years was ducks and the ideal free distribution. Go to a pond that has ducks. Take a large bag of popcorn. Ignore the signs that say “do not feed the ducks” in the name of science. Arrange students in two groups at opposite ends of the pond and arrange for them to feed at different rates (e.g. one side throws in popcorn every 10 seconds, the other every 30). Then measure the number of ducks at either station. They will follow an IFD. Students can hypothesize and introduce variations about information (secretly dropping popcorn), predator threat (simulated by stamping of feet) and etc. of what would cause deviations from the IFD.

    A lab that I designed that seemed to go over well with students addressed age structuring and episodic recruitment in saguaros. it is pretty place specific but I’ll describe as I’m sure modifications are possible. Measure the height of a saguaro, Use a paper (have to look up which one – I think Turner was an author) that gives the growth curve for saguaros to turn this into age. measure a population. Draw a histogram of ages observed. Observe episodic recruitment. Note correlation between recruitment periods and rainfall patterns. Certainly you could probably do a similar thing with tree DBH although the story (episodic recruitment driven by rain would probably vary with locale).

    A lot of macroecology can be done pretty easily and is: a) a good way to get students to actually identify multiple species, b) introduces data analysis beyond a t-test (i.e regression), and c) is generally pretty popular since it involves tramping around counting things. But species area relationships, species abundance distributions and island biogeography (area and isolation correlations with richness) all can be observed in the field pretty easily. I’ve done them in multiple biomes and they all go over well.

    Its not in the field and students don’t love it. But I do think sitting down with software that emulates basic competition and predation equations that lets students tweak parameters and observe trajectories in state space is very valuable for building intuition and demystifying the equations.

    • Oh one more. It is pretty easy to do statistics to see if two species co-occur with each other more or less often than by chance. In the desert we used Krameria which was a parasitic plant with its host (don’t remember at the moment) and also looked at whether creosote was clumped or overdispersed – one of the classic case studies of overdispersion. Might have done nurse plants too. Gets into spatial structure but also just highlights species interactions in a single day (removal experiments and such I would imagine are harder to do in a lab context).

    • “Add me to the list for foraging for beans (totally different lineage for the teachers). It is to teach optimal foraging.”

      Yes, now that you say that, I recall that optimal foraging was in there too. In our version I think it came in because some students decided to start focusing in on certain colors of jelly bean, as a tactic to try to up their foraging rate.

      And I stand corrected on my hypothesis that my prof must’ve gotten the foraging for beans lab from her time at Cornell. Apparently everyone really does do the foraging for beans lab! 🙂

      “The all time favorite lab in my TA years was ducks and the ideal free distribution…”

      That’s a great lab. Wish we had a duck pond sufficiently close that we could do it with our students.

  5. One that has always stood out for me (and I used it frequently when I taught ecology) was a field lab involving waders, D-framed nets, white-bottomed pans & Hilsenhoff’s biotic index. This is especially fun if you can locate a small stream rich in invertebrates (i.e., one not receiving urban or agricultural run-off) and another stream impacted by run-off.

    I believe students enjoy this lab because they are able to work directly with living organisms and can go from start to finish on the ecology part of it in one day. I found it was much more enjoyable to sort the bugs in the field and return them to the creek alive, opposed to drenching them with alcohol & sorting in the lab on another day. Hilsenhoff’s biotic index is ideal for this approach, and allows for a good transformation to related lecture topics. Depending on the experience of the students, taxonomy can be applied in varying degrees of difficulty.

  6. I recall a couple of the labs from my animal behavior course.

    One was just collecting observations. We went to a pond on campus that had Red-winged Blackbirds nesting around it. Students worked in pairs to record the calls of the birds and map where they were when they made the calls, then used the information to map the birds’ territories.

    The other looked at the effects of alcohol on aggression, using fighting fish. Each pair of students had a male fighting fish in a little bowl, and a mirror. Show the fish its reflection and it’ll do an aggressive display. Students record some measure of the length or intensity of the display. Then you add a bit of alcohol to the water, wait a few minutes, and repeat. Then add a bit more alcohol, and so on. And then you stop when the fish starts to keel over and transfer it to clean water to recover. What you’re supposed to get (though it didn’t work very cleanly the year I took the course) is a humped curve, showing that aggression increases with moderate alcohol consumption, but then decreases once the alcohol consumption becomes near-debilitating. The obvious analogy to the effect of alcohol in humans is left as an exercise for the students. 🙂

  7. Two labs definintely stand out:

    One part of my first-year field course was three-week-long “independent” study course. We divided in to groups, which had set themes, but we decided, with gentle guidance, what experiments we performed. I ended up in carabid group, where we did quite succesful edge effect and cafeteria experiments. I still remember the best our behavioral experiment. We had T-shaped maze and we were trying to figure out if carabids can learn which way to turn in the maze. The other side had nice and comfortable moist and dark shelter while the other had negative stimulus. We tested different options for quite a long time, until we ended up tying wood ant in the leash and putting it as “negative stimulus”. And it worked! Every time carabid wondered to that side, the ant would attack the poor guy. Nothing else really worked with that experiment, but it was definitely fun.

    As probably everyone in Helsinki, I’ve also played my share of metapopulation game (http://www.helsinki.fi/science/metapop/Teaching/game.html). I’ve also used the game for many times while teaching high school students. It’s not only that it makes metapopulation concepts rather concrete, but it also allows nice discussions on models and simulation in ecology. After playing the game I normally ask the students to think which rules should be added to the game to make it more realistic. It’s not difficult to come up many improvements how it would be more authentic but pretty quickly the game gets too complicated (i.e., students don’t remember the rules, it’s too complicated to decide how to play it). Then we turn into discussing how biologists use models, what’s the relationship between the model and the reality and what makes a good model.

  8. Ok, a couple more and then I’ll stop. 🙂

    Years ago I bought a spiral bound book the ESA used to produce, a collection of lab experiments for undergrad ecology courses. I was struck how many involved protist microcosms! I’ve used such exercises myself in small upper level population ecology courses. I’ve usually had the class do real experiments (as opposed to exercises or demonstrations), which take about a 4-6 weeks. But you could do exercises too–a Gause-type experiment on logistic growth and interspecific competition would be an easy one. Just don’t count on getting competitive exclusion (unless you choose the right species and culture conditions). And don’t necessarily count on the Lotka-Volterra competition model fitting the population dynamics perfectly. Though you can probably count on being able to use simple ad hoc methods to get reasonable estimates of carrying capacities and competition coefficients.

    Years ago, Ed McCauley used to do a functional response lab involving having students feed Daphnia to goldfish one at a time with pipettes. I didn’t teach it myself so only know the n-th hand version. The basic idea was that, as you started adding Daphnia faster and faster, you’d see the goldfish functional response saturate. It turns out that that’s very difficult–apparently goldfish basically have zero handling time for Daphnia. They just snap up the Daphnia instantly no matter how fast a student (or even a few students working together) drops Daphnia into the water.

  9. I mostly only remember ones that weren’t recipe labs:
    1. Measure stuff and learn about natural variation. We went outside to the campus gardens with rulers and had to pick 5 different traits to measure on anything we wanted. Could be “count the number of leaves on species A” or “measure the height of species B”. We then had to do basic statistical summaries of the measurements we made: mean, standard deviation, that sort of thing. Then present one of the five traits, briefly, to the class.

    2. We formed groups (of 4?) and had access to lots of pill bugs. We had to design an experimental involving them, do the experiment, and present the results. TA’s helped find necessary materials. I think my group did something about sensitivity to different colors and speed of moving away from a light source. This was a 3-week lab, with design the first week, experiment the second week, and analysis/presentation the third week. Another similar lab involved watercress, with treatments often being light/no-light or nutrients/no-nutrients.

    3. Tilman’s intro ecology class’s lab is mostly design-your-own experiment. The last half of the semester is devoted to groups (3-4 people) coming up with their own experimental idea, conducting it, analyzing it, writing it up, and presenting it to the class. My group had someone who’d worked with an invasive plant the previous summer, so we actually did an experiment with it, with the TA’s helping us get the necessary permits.

    • “Tilman’s intro ecology class’s lab is mostly design-your-own experiment. ”

      I have it on good authority that Hairston et al. 1968 Ecology (a protist microcosm experiment) is the product of a design-your-own-experiment class at the graduate level. Though the class wasn’t originally intended to have that format. The story I heard is that a bunch of grad students (including John Vandermeer and others who went on to become famous ecologists) approached Nelson Hairston Sr. and basically said “We don’t want to take your graduate ecology course, we want to run this experiment instead”. And Nelson said ok.

      • Neat story. I should note all the labs I mentioned were at the undergrad level.

  10. There are a few labs and discussions that I remember vividly. At UMBS, I enjoyed the cemetery demographics lab as well as the snail catch-and-release population modeling lab (even though that was the lab that I put the field notebook in poison ivy). My favorite discussion was during the first class of intro EEB about Pleistocene rewilding. It was absolutely fascinating and I still remember it.

  11. Its not too surprising that (optimal) foraging ‘games’ play a big role in memorable lab experiences since coming up with meaningful, conceptual things to teach in a couple-a-hour lab is a challenge for ecology. ~40 yrs ago I designed the ‘optimal foraging game’ , a paper version of the classical ‘optimal diet’ model, (and based on Holling’s disc eqn.); we determined in our ecology labs at U Utah that the expected outcome [ more energy intake] would indeed be seen if we averaged over a large set of decision rules used by a big lab class [ maybe 30 students]. The game was published in a volume edited by Larry Crowder [1977] entitled ‘ Ecological Lab Experiences; an ideas forum’; I have no idea if the book is available somewhere.
    Ric Charnov

  12. Thank you all so much! This is so much fun to read and is certainly helpful as we make a semester long lab from scratch!

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