Class exercises for teaching conservation biology

I’m in the midst of writing a new module in Conservation Biology. It’s quite exciting (and daunting) to start a course with an entirely blank slate. Finding material for the lectures is no problem because I’m following a standard textbook and there’s never a shortage of examples in the literature. It’s always more difficult to come up with class exercises though. These are crucial to engage students with the subject matter and get them to critically evaluate different positions, including their own.

This is the first time I’ve taught a whole module on the subject, but luckily there are many others who have trodden the same path before me, so I put out a call for ideas on Twitter:

As expected, this provoked an avalanche of brilliant ideas, all classroom-tested and ready to roll out. Rather than hoard them all, here’s a summary of the suggestions, several of which I’m already planning to deploy.

Unsurprisingly there are already resources out there, so before developing something on your own take a look at the online collections provided by @sesync, @CaseStudEnv, @BIOINTERACTIVE, @CBC_AMNH, National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, CISV International (including one on deforestation in DR Congo), HNV Link on agroecosystems, as well as the discussion questions in many textbooks. Below are just the ones that were suggested directly.

A great idea which I had already stolen from @juliapgjones is to launch into the course by getting the students to take the Future of Conservation survey:

This is a great way to get students to explore their own attitudes and preconceptions at the outset, which provides a foundation for them to reflect on the material and their responses to it. There’s even a GO-FOX tool which allows you to carry out bespoke surveys for closed groups, allowing students to compare their opinions to the rest of the class. Even if you’re an experienced conservation practitioner I recommend you to do the test; it’s very revealing.

One of the oldest arguments in conservation biology is the SLOSS debate over reserve design (Single Large Or Several Small). I admit to being a little weary of this one based on the simple observation that such abstract, idealised concepts almost never play out in reality. Nevertheless, as an exercise in discussing where our priorities should lie, this is a nice self-contained topic to work on. For example, students could be given a hypothetical landscape and invited to discuss how to distribute a limited reserve area within it. @LauraEllenDee has a jigsaw exercise based on her recent paper which covers this material nicely.

A related issue, and perhaps closer to what happens on the ground, is to look at the tension between land sharing and sparing:

Biodiversity trade-offs are another great opportunity to turn into a game. Having known @jlsnaddon for some time, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s found a way to transform this simple idea into something that looks professionally designed:

Another fun game comes from this set of notes for a class on the Tragedy of the Commons, which @CarlaWildlife has adapted using Skittles. She also has more suggestions:

One way to take conservation strategy away from abstract considerations is to use real-world case studies. Students can be invited to choose sites worldwide, download species lists, calculate EDGE scores or other biodiversity metrics, and identify possible actions or priorities in either a poster or talk. It sounds as though there’s an interesting publication coming up which does exactly this:

A number of people recommended roleplay exercises as a great way to explore the different sides of complex debates in conservation. Students often get so involved in the discussion that this becomes quite heated. Not unlike the real world. A great one to whet the appetite is the issue of feral cats, with some good evidence of impacts on piping plovers. The harvesting of sea turtle eggs is another. You could raise the stakes by turning it into a shark tank dynamic (which I think is the same as a balloon debate). You can even get a good argument out of students by looking out of the window and asking about the differences in conservation value between a lawn and an unmanaged patch.

Another topic with a well-established body of conservation theory is Population Viability Analysis, and here again students can try out the calculations for themselves (I imagine this is often quite sobering):

Debates are also an important tool. For example:

This sounds like a great question. I’m wary of setting quite so much compulsory reading, although Feral and Rambunctious Garden sound very provocative and I should probably read them myself.

Other common tools are online quizzes followed by class discussion (Mentimeter is a recommended tool), showing or making students create videos, or getting them to develop their own case studies which they can present back to the class:

Finally, I’m intrigued by a suggestion from @Tarsiussallius of bringing in some Citizen Science element; I’ll have to think more about how to achieve that (and would love to hear from anyone who has done this).

This post is a work in progress and I’d welcome any other suggestions or feedback based on class experience. If you have a great exercise (or know of one) then why not nominate it for the Case Studies in the Environment Prize? Fame, glory and $2000 could be yours.

 


Thanks for input on this post (in order of their replies in the original thread) to @ecoevoenviro, @Jungle_Lou, @bonebraking, @Honor_Prentice, @juliapgjones, @bangorherps, @EntoProf, @SaraScanga, @LauraEllenDee, @jlsnaddon, @ja_tobias, @LaMontagneLab, @Zen_of_Science, @mceuen_amy, @Tarsiussallius, @KampJohannes, @OrnithoAle, @TraciInFinland, @_GeorgeHolmes, @josephjbailey, @Dr_Stoat, @KStackWhitney, @CaseStudEnv, @katiemattaini, @megcevans, @CarlaWildlife, @katzyna, @Rosie_Baillie_, @Xim_Neri, @yitarn. If you’re looking for an inspiring set of conservation educators on Twitter then follow all of them.

 

 

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