Hoisted from the comments: what recent(ish) research should be taught in intro bio courses, or intro ecology courses, but isn’t?

Commenter Jeff Houlahan asks an interesting question. Paraphrasing: what recent research (say, from the last couple of decades) should be taught in intro bio courses, but isn’t?

Jeff suggests Jack Szostak’s research on the origins of life as something that should be taught in intro bio courses, but isn’t. Another commenter suggests Crispr. Any other suggestions?

Since this is an ecology blog, let’s expand the question a bit and also ask it of intro ecology courses.

As Jeff suggests in his comment, we’re not looking here for recent(ish) illustrations of topics already taught in intro bio or intro ecology, for which plenty of good old examples also exist. And we’re not trying to identify recent(ish) studies that students would find enjoyable or engaging. We’re looking for more substantial, fundamental updates to the typical intro bio or intro ecology course. We’re trying to identify important recent(ish) work on topics that aren’t ordinarily taught in intro bio or intro ecology, but could be. And also important recent(ish) advances on topics that are ordinarily taught in intro bio or intro ecology.

Looking forward to your comments.

13 thoughts on “Hoisted from the comments: what recent(ish) research should be taught in intro bio courses, or intro ecology courses, but isn’t?

  1. From my very narrow and limited point of view, I really liked the work by Blasius et al. last year in Nature on validating predator-prey cycles, and quite a lot of the related theoretical work by Hastings and others on transient dynamics in ecology. I think there’s a nice story there about the role of mathematical modelling, how it has evolved over the past century, and how much even simple questions like predator-prey cycles can be challenging to sophisticated contemporary tools. I’m unsure how much of this story would be appreciated by intro students, but I do think there’s room for a theme of explaining the bigger picture. It nicely illustrates how far we have come in our understanding, and how much we still haven’t perfectly explained (regarding the switching between synchrony/asynchrony in the Nature paper, for instance). I also think it’s one of the simpler bits of ecology where modelling has historically played a role from what I understand.

    An important caveat is that I’ve never actually taken a course in ecology – the closest is a graduate course on mathematical biology where many topics came from ecology. My understanding of the pedagogy of the field is extremely limited, so I always look forward to posts like this one where I can learn more of it by osmosis! 😉

    • Hmm. Speaking as someone who teaches upper level population ecology, I feel like that stuff would either fit in an upper level population ecology class, or maybe even be too advanced for an upper level population ecology class. But we’ll see what others think…

  2. I have been teaching the fox domestication experiment for a long time now – a great example to keep going back to when covering different areas of biology: evolution, ecology, behavior, physiology, embryology, genetics, and show the BIO101 students how all those areas of biology are interconnected and not vastly separate areas, like their textbook chapters tend to represent it.

    Another topic/example I use throughout the BIO101 course is malaria – again something that ties together molecular biology, biochemistry, behavior, ecology, evolution, protistology, immunology etc.

    Animal behavior is usually given a short shrift in BIO textbooks, but I expand it and use it, again, to show how all subdisciplines of biology converge there.

    In anatomy and physiology classes, what I mostly teach these days, I add a big unit on the circadian system, which is barely mentioned in the textbook. Students tend to find it eye-opening.

    For the final essay, I usually ask students to find some new research that is either missing from or contradicts the textbook. They find interesting stuff.

    • I don’t teach ecology (that’s not my background), but when I cover it in BIO101 I also give them examples of temporal division of resources, e.g., golden spiny mice in the Evolution Canyon in Israel, where on species has forced the other related one to become diurnal instead of nocturnal.

    • This final essay idea is a terrific one – it ticks so many boxes for what we want science students to be able to do.

      Independent research
      Interpreting data
      Evaluating research quality
      Assessing evidence for competing ideas.

      I’m sure you get some wacky ideas given that most first year students wouldn’t be very good at this yet – but it sounds like a great exercise.

  3. I suspect Richard Lenski’s work is taught in most first year courses when we’re providing evidence for evolution and evolution by natural selection but I don’t actually know. Obviously, there are lots of examples to choose from – from pesticide resistance through disease evolution but I’m not sure there’s a more elegant, more obvious example of natural selection in action.
    The one Intro Biology text I have on my bookshelf does mention Lenski’s work but not in the chapter on Evolution. An open source text has no mention of Richard’s work. I would guess that if it’s not making it into the first year texts it might not be as common in the 1st year courses as we would like.

    • If I was teaching first year bio I’d definitely look for any excuse to incorporate the LTEE! So that makes two of us, at least. 🙂 But as you say, the LTEE in first year bio would function mostly as a replacement for some older example of evolution by natural selection.

  4. Vellend’s framing of community ecology processes as analogous to population genetics gives teaching the subject some much needed structure and the comparison to familiar genetic concepts is pedagogically powerful.

    • Interesting suggestion. If I was teaching an upper level community ecology course, I’d probably frame it as Vellend does (at least a large chunk of it). But I hadn’t thought about using Vellend’s framework in intro ecology.

  5. Perhaps the emphasis could be less on what new topics shoud be being taught, but rather on what new topics all biologists/ecologists should be aware of and exist? Of which being aware that CRISPR is useful for all ecologists/biologists to know exists but I doubt essential to know in detail, and perhaps a brief foray into its applications in disease control/conservation etc.
    In the same way I think that the current coronavirus pandemic has highlighted it would be good for all ecologists/biologists to have an awareness of basic epidemiology (risk factors, contact networks, trial design, intervention design, etc); especially as evidenced based medicine is still a fairly recent development.

    • In a similar vein I would suggest eDNA (and the PCR reaction that enables it) and the wide variety of applications it has enabled in studying the community structure of bacteria (including microbiomes), fungi, and rare aquatic species.

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