Saturday, March 10, 2012

Teaching Ecosystem Ecology

I consider myself an ecosystem ecologist, but I never took a course in ecosystem ecology.

That's not rare.

The first edition of Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology wasn't published until 2002. Terry estimated that about 2000 copies of the book get sold a year, which is probably a good estimate of the number of students that take ecosystem ecology courses. That might seem like a lot, but it's not at the global scale--probably 30-40 universities.

I did a quick survey of the 12 Big Ten schools. For me, these are my reference points on the state of US higher education. The schools are big, generally have good biology programs (Northwestern axed theirs a while back), and with over 300,000 undergraduate students are should be pretty representative of US higher education.

In the Big Ten, only 3 of the 12 schools regularly teach an undergraduate ecosystem ecology course. Others have graduate-level courses in one form or another, some have a more applied ecosystem ecology course (forest ecosystem ecology), offer courses that address a component of ecosystem ecology (nutrient cycling or stoichiometry), or roll it in with community ecology. Some don't list anything close.

That's pretty dismal, but I bet pretty representative of Ecosystem Ecology education in the US. My feeling is about 20% of the institutions offer an ecosystem ecology course. If that.

Why is that? What can be done?

My feeling is that part of the reason for the low rate at which these courses are taught has to do with how faculty are hired and how they get allocated.

More ecosystem ecologists need to be hired. The ecosystem ecologists hired need to teach the course.

Even with that, my guess is that we need to think ahead and make sure that on-line courses are available for students that happen to be in departments that don't offer ecosystem ecology. And the massive number of people that aren't enrolled in degree-granting institutions. CMV is a great textbook, but it's no substitute for a course. Most textbooks include much more information than is typically covered in a course, are as much reference as a guide, and aren't as rich a learning environment.

Thinking about how to teach ecosystem ecology in a scalable manner is probably one of our discipline's biggest challenges. So many critical environmental issues rely on a solid understanding of the ecology of ecosystems, learning to teach ecosystem ecology more (and better) is one of our most important tasks in the next decade.

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