Teaching ecology involves the difficult task of supporting students in their attempts to connect abstract concepts with elements of the natural world. A successful ecology course is one in which students learn to see beyond Animal Planet vignettes of organisms eating each other to the broader consequences of those interactions and the myriad others that would escape our notice if we were not trained to look for them. I teach two primary courses at Yale, landscape ecology and aquatic ecology. In both, I challenge students to link the attributes of particular systems with the ways in which ecologists conceptualize the natural world. My goal is to provoke them into thinking about (1) why we need such concepts, (2) what are the tradeoffs encountered when comparing among concepts and models, (3) how are concepts and models translated into robust and testable predictions, and (4) how do we wade out into the natural world and figure out what to measure and how to interpret what we have measured.
As a practical matter each course involves tradeoffs of its own. Landscape ecology is a large, introductory level lecture course in which I employ Web-based lab exercises (http://www.cbc.yale.edu/people/skelly/teaching.html). I try to engage students in the many ways that we can conceive of ecological patterns and then to consider the challenges inherent in studying large scale patterns. There are good reasons why ecologists have tended to look at smaller scales. During the course, the students learn about a variety of attempts to overcome the difficulties in working at large scales (e.g., island biogeography, cellular automata, spatially explicit, individual based models). Students interact with the natural world primarily by completing a term project in which they are encouraged to develop a hypothesis and test a prediction using meta-analysis. The projects have turned out to be a remarkably successful way to get students engaged as scientists. In addition, for particularly motivated students, they have yielded an opportunity to do publishable quality research. In five years of teaching this class three students have produced papers that have been or will be published in peer-reviewed journals.
By contrast, aquatic ecology is a much smaller, upper level class with a heavy emphasis on field instruction. I am fortunate to have access to two field sites with a wealth of historical data. Students spend the first half of the course sampling Linsley Pond where G. Evelyn Hutchinson and his students worked for many years beginning in the 1930’s. Students learn theory, some of which was at least partially inspired by work in Linsley (e.g., Size-Efficiency Hypothesis), and they learn sampling techniques all while adding to a long-term historical record of information.
During the second half of the course, we work in a small watershed where Herb Bormann, developer of the Hubbard Brook Project and now an emeritus professor, has lived for over 30 years. We add to background data collected by his former students to evaluate two small order streams. Students learn to measure physical and chemical characteristics of streams and how to sample and identify macroinvertebrates. One of these streams is in a largely undeveloped subwatershed while other was subjected to a housing development in the 1970’s. Students use their own and historical sources to chart the divergence in characteristics of these streams.
Feedback from students in the form of course evaluations and teaching awards suggests that these courses have been effective. While I am very comfortable with the subjects I have been teaching at Yale, I recognize that there are likely to be different needs at different institutions. I am prepared to teach any of a variety of ecology or conservation related topics as well as field and taxonomy based courses (e.g., herpetology).