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.