Poll results: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

Last week, I did a quick poll asking people how much math they think is involved in ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, and also how much math they use in their own research. What counts as a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math is up for debate, of course. But I am most interested in the comparison between the three fields and, especially, in comparing the responses of DE readers with those of my intro bio students.

To give more explanation: it seems clear to me that undergrads are generally surprised by the amount of math that is in ecology. And, from talking with colleagues (here and elsewhere), it’s clear I’m not the only person who has the impression that college students do not expect ecology to involve math.

I’ve been thinking about how to try to address this with students. I want to try to better prepare them for what the ecology section of the course will involve. I worked with Susan Cheng (Cornell) to design a survey for students, polling them on their views of ecology, evolution, and genetics. We ran the survey at the beginning of the semester and plan on running it again at the end of the semester to see whether/how views change.

What did we find?
75% of incoming Intro Bio students think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. But only 33% think ecologists do.

How does that compare with DE readers?
64.7% of Dynamic Ecology poll respondents think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. 78.5% think ecologists do.

And how does that compare with what ecologists report in terms of how much math they use in their own research? 80% of DE poll respondents who identified as ecologists said they use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math.

(Sample sizes: For Intro Bio, n = 271; for the DE poll, n = 349; for the subset of just ecologists, n = 225)

In other words: there is a really big difference between the amount of math that students just starting Intro Bio think ecology will involve vs. how much ecologists say it involves.

I’ve been thinking about how I will talk about this with students. I think that, at the start of the population ecology lecture, I will tell them that there’s something that often surprises students: ecology involves math. I will note that most people haven’t been exposed to ecology before taking the course – it was certainly true for me that I never thought about ecology before getting to college. I think that, as a first year college student, I didn’t really know what ecology was, but probably had a vague sense that it was what you see in the nature videos on PBS. It definitely did not occur to me that it involved math! I can then transition to saying this is similar to what students in this year’s course think. I then plan on presenting the same set of numbers that I have above. My hope with this is not to scare them, but to better prepare them for what is coming.

I think it’s problematic that, this year and the two previous times I’ve taught Intro Bio, I’ve only taught the ecology half of the course. That means I haven’t worked with the students through all the genetics stuff — which is hard but in a way that they expect. So, I haven’t developed a rapport with the students as we work through that material. That means one potential explanation for why there’s an unexpected about of math in the ecology portion of the course is simply that I’m a mean person who likes to make things hard. So, I’ve asked to teach the entire semester the next time I teach. I think it will help a lot.

We plan on surveying the students at the end of the semester to see how their views have changed. I’m very interested in seeing those results, but I’m not sure they will change much. Again, because I’m only teaching the second half of the course, some of them might not change their views on how much math is involved in ecology because they might still think that I was just making things unnecessarily hard. (We actually don’t do a lot of math, in my opinion. There’s no Lotka-Volterra, for example. But it’s more than they expect.) So, I’m interested not just in seeing how the views change this semester, but also how they change in future semesters. My hope is that, in the future, I will be able to prepare them for ecology involving math by showing them data on how views of previous students changed over the course of the semester.

Do you find undergraduates who are new to ecology are surprised by what ecology is, including the amount of math it involves? What (if anything) do you do to try to prepare them for what ecology is?

8 thoughts on “Poll results: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

  1. “I’m a mean person who likes to make things hard. ”

    Ha ha! 🙂 No matter what you do, if you teach a challenging course, many students will think that. IME its good to warn them, then follow up by being as helpful and nice as you can be. By the 2nd half, most of them have figured out that they are actually learning something and get into it and work hard for you.

  2. I actually thought you might focus more on the relative “mathiness” score of each subject after accounting for mean scores specific to the each individual and (perhaps) the field they’re coming from (since I thought people would vary a lot in what, eg, a “moderate” amount of math is).

    Interesting difference in student vs researcher perception. Also, makes sense that ecology appear less mathy (especially for nat resources students), but I didn’t expect the difference to be that big! Less related: I think DE readers would be a bit more theory-oriented (so might overestimate mathiness in ecology a bit).

  3. When I teach Ecology, the first words out of my mouth are always the ecology in at it core a quantitative science. Each and every aspect of ecology can be boiled down to the question “under what conditions does the net reproductive rate of a population exceed 1.0, and what are the conditions where it doesn’t. Similarly, in the evolution course, the most basic question is when does the net replication rate of a locus exceed 1.0.? In any particular case the answer can be due to deterministic or stochastic processes, but, the key question is greater than or less than 1.0.

  4. It’s not just ecology. Biosciences students in general can be surprised by the amount of maths they need to do, and some really struggle. I just wrote my dissertation for my teaching qualification all about this!

  5. We’re talking about teaching introductory biology, correct? *Many* students take this course (or geology or geography) for a science credit specifically to avoid the math in chemistry and physics. It’s standard practice. When I taught intro geology students frequently complained about both the math and the chemistry in the class. That’s never going to change.

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