Different types of hands-on projects in a natural history course

In what seems to be becoming my annual post on help me think out loud about my fall teaching assignment (see last year’s post on community ecology classes), I am thinking about a field-oriented natural history course I’ll be teaching this fall and what assignments/evaluation tools I should use. Or more broadly, you hear a lot about best pedagogical approaches to classroom learning (including many great posts from Meg), but less about outdoor pedagogy. I think we all think since we’re ecologists this is obvious. Or maybe outdoor learning is so obviously active-learning, project-based, real-world etc which is what we’re trying to bring into classrooms that we don’t have to worry about it. But really, outdoor pedagogy is pretty much teach as we’ve been taught every bit as much as classrooms have been. I’ve increasingly been appreciating how much deep thinking is required to really get pedagogy right, and since I’m taking over a field course, I’ve been thinking a lot about my goals and how to align them with teaching and evaluation tools outdoors. I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts.

To make this concrete will still keeping this fairly generic, I am looking at a natural history course, the center-piece of which is multiple half-day field trips to a variety of ecosystems, and I am looking for an integrative project that spans the semester. I am considering three different projects:

  1. Do your own research/experiment – this is fairly typical in the OTS type model where you are spending a few weeks at a field station (I’ve taught such a course myself). Here you mentor students through the process of designing, executing and writing up a discrete piece of novel research. Pros – this teaches the scientific method and is fairly open-ended and clearly requires stretching their critical thinking skills and at least one form of writing. Cons – Many students aren’t really ready to do independent research as undergrads (especially lower level) and so often find this assignment more frustrating/intimidating than inspiring and in some cases do such low level work I’m not sure they learn much (or worse learn a very simplistic view of science), and its not particularly integrative (i.e. good at teaching scientific method, bad at helping students make connections and insights in natural history)
  2. Do a digital specimen collection – this is also a fairly typical assignment in “ology” classes (I did one myself in my graduate days in an entomology class). Since my class cuts across many taxa (requiring many types of collection equipment) I would probably have this be a digital collection instead of a physical collection where students take photos, put them into a document and annotate each photo with species ID, location, and notes about the species. Pros – this reinforces the goal of learning to ID species, paying attention while outdoors and seems likely to be retained as a tool useful to students after they graduate. Cons – less integrative than the other two choices, although this comes down a lot to what and how much I make them write in addition to the photos.
  3. Write a natural history journal – I haven’t encountered this one as much but a colleague suggested it. The assignment basics would be: 1) pick a small piece of land, 2) study it in depth from the soil to the sky, 3) make repeated visits, 4) write 5 pages about this location and its dynamics and interconnections in the spirit of Thoreau or McPhee. Pros – very integrative, very open-ended, a lot of emphasis on writing which is good (although like most biology courses we’re not really set up to do extensive mentoring on writing). Cons – pretty risky to expect students to observe and write like Thoreau.

There are some course-specific constraints in my own mind for my personal situation (although I think they’re not untypical of many teaching situations): this is lower division undergraduate (200-level), largish (44 students vs 2 instructors) course so more limited opportunities for mentorship than ideal. It is not a 2-week at a field station type of course so students will be doing this assignment very independently on their own time in the business of the semester (or not doing it until the last minute in some cases). The course is also literally focused on natural history, not principles of ecology or such (we have a separate ecology class). You can, of course, share your thoughts in the context of these constraints or I would be equally interested to hear your thoughts about the three options in your own context.

I personally have two main goals for this assignment: 1) is to be integrative. By integrative I mean they will already have lab exams on species ID and lecture exams on the stages of old-field succession etc. I really want something different that makes them think big picture, have ah-ha moments of connection and develop critical thinking and writing skills in addition to memorization. 2) is just to have fun and inspire. It is shocking how little time the average ecology student spends outdoors in their 4 years (forestry and wildlife do a little better than biology departments but still not great). This is likely to be their primary exposure to in-the-field until their 4th year for many students. I want them feel inspired by the awesomeness of nature that made us all go into the subject (while still being able to evaluate learning and give grades).

How important do you think these goals are? Do you think these assignments meet these goals? Any tips or gotchas you’ve learned the hard way on any of these projects?Other goals are imaginable and I’d be curious to hear them. Of course I’d be curious to hear other suggestions for assignments to meet these goals too.What do you see as the relative merits of these three projects? What do you think should be the primary pedagogical goals in a course that represents many students first exposure to the wonders of nature in a hands-on fashion? More broadly is pedagogy for outdoor teaching easy, or do we need to rethink this too?


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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

23 thoughts on “Different types of hands-on projects in a natural history course

    • Thanks for the link Chris. It was a different course, but the field course at McGill at Mt St Hillaire was one of the funnest courses I taught.

  1. One thing I do myself in the field, and also ask my field assistants to do, that I think is really helpful for engaging with natural history is to think of the most interesting thing we’ve seen in the field every day. If you have field teams (or groups of students), comparing notes of these most interesting sightings can spark interesting discussions. Closely related to this is simply asking assistants`/students to come up with questions about what they see, and then thinking through the process of designing an experiment to address those questions. This is sort of halfway between a natural history journal and the OTS-style projects, where you are thinking about and designing, but not necessarily carrying out, an experiment that is inspired by field based observations.

    Also, when I did OTS as an undergrad, I certainly didn’t feel ready yet to do independent research, but the faculty had a couple of long-term projects going that we could contribute to. I found the stepping-stone of contributing a specific dataset to an existing project less intimidating than a wholly independent project (if I recall right, our projects still had to have something that made them unique, so it wasn’t just doing what we were told to do).

    • Good point about analyzing observations scientifically without necessarily turning it into the full-blown 5-page write-up type of project.

  2. For courses focused on specific taxa, what about requiring students to create accounts for sharing data on larger natural history, citizen-science databases? In my ornithology course, I require students to create eBird accounts and submit checklists from both our group field trips, where they have help with identification, and independent outings, where they don’t. Audio recordings can be submitted at xeno-canto.org. Lepidopterans can be submitted if students create a My BAMONA account at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/ . And so forth.

    I haven’t formally assessed it, but my sense is that students treat the database submission as demanding a degree of seriousness and honesty not necessarily required in the field journals I had previously required. And students have generally reported that they enjoyed working with eBird.

    • I really like the citizen science angle and the way this helps students feel part of genuine research (with corresponding responsibilities). Thanks for the suggestion!

      • I am not aware of one for mammals (and I’ve looked hard since in my research side I am a consumer of such data). Birds, butterflies, dragonflies and herps are the major up and running citizen science reporting efforts I know of in North America. I think there are also some invasive plant reporting databases but I don’t have much experience with them. THere are also quite a few phenology reporting efforts (National Phenology Network & Project Budburst perhaps being the biggest). NOw that I say that, I believe the NPN does have some mammal phenology reporting (not quite the same as mammal presence/absence reporting, but maybe useful to you).

    • The field notebook is the one option I have no personal experience with either as student or teacher, so hopefully somebody else will share their thoughts.

      But I think you put your finger on the key issue with this assignment – and its the flipside of the positive of being very open ended – given that most students aren’t going to be Thoreau, what exactly are we looking for and how do we communicate this expectation and evaluate it?

      • As I grade the notebooks from my summer course, I think a basic framework for a future rubric would be:
        decent: writes about the things I told them.
        good: writes their own observations about the place.
        best: makes their own observations and hypothesizes about why they might happen or connects them to other outside knowledge.
        Hope for further ideas on these kinds of assignments!

  3. Any field exercise that involves collecting invertebrates can yield a lot of natural history bang for the buck. I recommend sweep sampling in meadows/oldfields. Use fixed areas (say, 20 sweeps in 2×2 m plots) that vary in their composition/physiognamy (lots of forbs, few forbs, monoculture urban, monoculture rural). Have them come up with a few hypotheses on the fly about abundance and diversity. Freeze the samples to kill the inverts, then, if you have decent dissecting scopes, the fun really begins.
    I think most students really enjoy picking through the debris, sorting, and identifying critters to morphospecies. It tickles their innate biophilia. In fact, I would not have any ID keys at the outset, so that students encounter the diversity of form and size themselves. After evaluating your hypotheses about diversity and abundance, you can begin with hypotheses that infer niche from morphology (maybe have them come up with their own functional traits). These samples yield body size distributions, frequency abundance distributions, all just from morphospecies. Then, when you give them some identification materials, you overlay phylogeny. Moreover, the taxonomy gives the students the key that gives them access to the literature, where they can test their inferences about niches. Assign different groups to be experts on a particular taxon and ask how that taxon will respond to warming, nitrogen deposition, urbanization.
    Another advantage is that you can always dip into these samples if you have rainy interruption of a planned field day.
    In short, there is so much you can do with inverts that you can’t do, say, with birds.

    • In my mind inverts and plants are completely different from birds and mammals in how easy they are to work with.

      Some great suggestions on sequencing of topics to align with student self-discovery.

  4. As part of my general Ecology class, I’ve been having students submit observations of species occurrence to a citizen science app, like iNaturalist. This has the obvious advantage that you can crowd source the identification, in case you are not an expert in identification of all organisms at your site.

    The first time I did this the assignment was wide-open–“make 20 observations and submit them to any of these (list) citizen science projects”. They also had to submit their observations to me in a shared spreadsheet and put their photos in a file on a shared drive (this allowed me to quickly check if they’d completed the assignment and award credit.

    This, as you might expect, yielded wildly variable quality of submissions. Next time, I will modify the assignment in a few ways: 1. each student or group picks a taxon and then learns enough about it to make quality observations–e.g. what features will they need to be aware of and make sure are included in the photo; 2. I’ll spend some time teaching them how to take an image of high enough quality that it can be used as data (geo-tagged, in focus, right lighting, etc.); 3. I’ll require additional observations (behavior? habitat? interactions?) so that the exercise is more focused on the organism and not just on its identification; 4. They will need to submit a couple of observations as drafts/trial run so that I can head off any problems before they quickly do all of the observations.

    Other thoughts:

    You can use your own campus before you get out in the “real” field the first time. That way everyone knows how to operate their own equipment as well as access the particular app they need to use. I’ve found that there is a lot of variability in how easy these citizen science apps are to use, and in the interface, so students need some time to learn how to use them.

    Initially students will pick the low hanging fruit, species-wise. Probably 50 observations from my class last spring were of small western fence lizards. Find a way to reward observations of species that are common, shy, small, or otherwise hard to find/observe.

    One of the beauties of something like this is it becomes easy (easier) to turn student work into preliminary data for your own projects, or for students to contribute to the bigger picture. I’m working on how to make the data the students gather part of a permanent record of biodiversity on our campus. If you want to do this too, build in a way for students to correct their initial ID after they post and the identification is vetted by the online community. This can be a great learning experience for students. One Ecology student submitted a butterfly picture to iNaturalist and within minutes received feedback and some questions that made her realize that her photo of an Adelpha butterfly on our campus in Los Angeles, which she had identified as the Arizona Sister, was much more likely to be the California Sister. The lesson was a valuable–check the known species distribution.

    This assignment was very popular with students, I think for two reasons. 1. It’s pretty much instant gratification and really fun to submit their observations online; 2. They can see how their work might actually be useful to someone else, and they actually talked about continuing to contribute observations in the future.

    • The more I hear, the more I really like the idea of submitting observations to a database, which I had not thought of.Thanks for the real world experience on this.

  5. Having done the first two of your ideas, I’ve often been disappointed with the quality. The next time I teach my general ecology class, I plan on having the students do a journal in the style of David Haskell: The Forest Unseen where students study and draw/write their observations on different parts or aspects of the same plot (“mandala”) over time. Of course, it wouldn’t have to be forest. I will likely also require a photo-journal to accompany which I think could feed the needs of a natural history course quite well, sort of combining the journal with a digital collection though in much reduced form. As another comment suggested, the rubric of such an assignment can be challenging but in my overly simplistic view, if the objectives are to be integrative and to inspire, the grading could largely be done on quantity and completing specific tasks (e.g. observing different levels of biological hierarchy, # entries, sketches, pictures, etc.) and less so on quality.

    • Thanks for the pointer to David Haskell. That is very much the kind of thing I had in mind. Very interesting idea of focusing on quantity instead of quality – not the norm in higher education (for good reasons) – but as you say it might be a good fit to the goals here.

  6. I’ve had good lucking taking students to two sites with similar environments but different disturbance histories. I have them describe species composition in each site and then try to explain the differences in composition they observe. We do this in one field trip with an informal discussion, but it could easily be extended and made into a formal report. The discussion gets interesting quickly–can you really know the difference in disturbance history is the cause of the differences you see? How could you be sure? Are there experiments you could conduct to test your hypothesis? I think it could be done with self-directed student visits too.

    • Thanks Peter. In the past, this course has used Tom Wessel’s books (e.g. Forest Forensics) about recreating what happened at a certain location. The successional trajectories version seems like a very concrete way that is guaranteed to stimulate something for every student.

  7. This is a great question – I’ve also participated in classes similar to your first two ideas – with mixed results. As a student I was asked to do something like the Haskell-style project, but I have to say I found it, kind of tedious. Probably because I just didn’t know enough at the time to find any interest in that kind of observation. My point is that many of the students may not have enough background to accomplish or appreciate this type of project. I really like the idea of submitting observations to an existing database as a means of making real contributions to the community.

    Recently, I’ve been involved in co-teaching some modelling courses. We noticed that the students have a lot of difficulty coming up with their own conceptualizations and rely heavily on stereotypical characterizations. So, I was thinking it would be interesting to ask the students to mix the observations they make with a conceptualization of the processes that may be happening (ie the things they can’t “see”) on a corner of the campus or their backyard, etc. It could be interesting to ask them to produce a series of sketches/diagrams which they modify with their observations and the information learned over the course of the class. They could work in small groups(?) and be asked to present their diagrams at the beg, midway point and end of the class. This way they could confront their ideas with those of other groups. It would probably be useful (in terms of quality) to insist on proper references being included for the final version. I don’t know if it would be important to insist on a particular question or angle for their observations – but I imagine some groups would need a bit of structure to get going. It could be interesting to challenge them at the end with some apparently simple questions like: did they observe an ecosystem? did they observe impact of human activities? etc. …

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