Evolutionary Ecology & Ecosystem Ecology 101: instructor perspectives on Duke’s required course for ecology PhDs

by Emily Bernhardt (ecosystem ecologist) and John Willis (evolutionary biologist)

EcoEvoEcology 101 Image

Graduate students excitedly co-authoring this blog post about our Duke Ecology core course. In just an hour and a half, we condensed many hours of discussion into one blog post. Is this post an example of rapid idea evolution? (photo credit: Emily Bernhardt)

Duke’s graduate program in Ecology requires students to take only two core courses. Over the several decades of the program’s existence the structure of these courses has shifted, depending on who is leading them. We’ve alternated amongst “professors on parade” guest lectures; directed reading of foundational papers; and quantitative practicums. Traditionally the course rotation focused on evolutionary-individual-population ecology in one year and on community-ecosystem ecology in the next. But because this course is taught by volunteering faculty, one year we ended up teaching individual-population-community ecology together and that meant that we would need to teach evolution-ecosystem ecology in a single course. At the meeting where we realized the issue, a number of faculty expressed concern – “what can we possibly do to connect these two areas”, “this doesn’t make any sense to teach together”. Others were excited about the potential to talk about intersections – “origins of life research!”, “linking individual and ecosystem stoichiometry!”, “climate change, rapid evolution, and ecosystem feedbacks!”. We all agreed upon reflection that the tension and the opportunity could be fun to explore. Now five rounds in, we’re convinced that this scheduling accident has turned into one of the best things our graduate program does for our students. We have asked our students to tell you why [see companion student essay], but we also have learned a lot from teaching this course and have a few thoughts we would like to share.

  1. When you cover two widely separated disciplines, no one is an expert. When you create a class environment in which admitting ignorance and asking for explanations is both modeled by faculty and encouraged by students, everyone learns a lot more. Our class this fall had students from throughout and beyond the boundaries of ecology, studying a wide variety of study organisms in and systems. In this situation, acknowledging the diversity of both our expertise and ignorance made space for us to explore how much our prior training influences the way we read, interpret and apply ecological ideas and theory. The first thing we had students do was to write down their definition of ecosystem ecology and evolutionary ecology. Not a single person felt comfortable with both of their definitions, this led to nervous laughter that gradually gave way to real laughter as all realized their shared discomfort.
  2. Building Trust is the first ingredient for good discussion: It is much easier to acknowledge your ignorance and ask naive questions of a group that you trust. The second activity on our first day of class was to send pairs of students out on a 30-minute listening walk. In our listening walk, each student had 15 uninterrupted minutes to tell their partner how they had ended up in graduate school at Duke and what they were doing here. When they returned to the classroom, each student introduced their walk partner to everyone else. Everyone turns out to be pretty interesting when given enough time to share their story and we got a sense on day one about the great variety of perspectives, expertise, enthusiasms and hobbies of one another. Knowing more about one another engenders trust and fosters respect.
  3. Good discussions require intent and design: The third component of our first day of class was a discussion of class discussions. Students had a minute to think about a really great course discussion they had experienced and a really awful one. They shared their stories with the person next to them and picked two ideas to share with the group. We made a chart on the board about what makes for a great discussion and what kills group dynamics. The answers were both entirely predictable and collectively enlightening. The recipes for a great discussion were pretty consistent: everyone contributes, there is a clearly stated objective, the subject matter is interesting, the participants are well prepared, people treat each other’s contributions with respect. In contrast, bad discussions can be bad for a variety of reasons – people who talk too much, people who never talk, lack of a plan, disrespectful interactions, boring material, a lack of preparation. So, then we talked about toolkits for guiding discussion and responsibilities for discussion participants. We told students that each of them would be leading a discussion and that every class would end with a 10-minute group evaluation of our performance. We set a goal of having great discussions, and of adaptively learning from what worked best and didn’t work in our attempts at achieving this goal.
  4. Diversity DOES improve function – Our students were at different points in their graduate career (from first semester PhD students to 4th and 5th year students as well as a student pursuing a master’s in education). They were focused on quite different subjects in their PhD research (evolutionary anthropology, nutritional ecology, animal behavior, population genetics, biogeochemistry, community ecology). They work on many different study organisms and ecological systems (ancient hominids, oak trees, dolphins, dogs, salt marshes, forested watersheds, Arabidopsis, elephants). Importantly for our course they had highly divergent expertise in the two subjects. This diversity of personal and professional experiences and perspectives meant that our discussions rarely stalled because of gaps in student knowledge or enthusiasm. There was always at least one student able to put forward an example from their own work that either explained or forced us to reexamine the issue at hand.

Note that none of our four take-away lessons from our class have anything to do with content. That’s because we quickly realized that a room full of brilliant and divergent graduate students should be our partners in designing a syllabus. We solicited ideas for topics in both fields from all students. We developed those ideas collectively into different bite sized discussion topics. We live voted for topics that more students were keen to pursue, and scheduled them in our syllabus. That’s why we ended up talking about menopause, epigenetics, the IPCC report, the origins of life, designer ecosystems, ecosystem engineering instead of reading the classics or focusing on the latest trends in the field. Compared to earlier attempts at a more traditional syllabus, we discovered that focusing on the issues students were curious about provided a better “anvil for ideas” while still offering plenty of opportunities to explore the modes of inquiry in each field.

Try it! Woo Hoo!

Author Biography: Emily Bernhardt and John Willis are both Professors in Duke’s Department of Biology and faculty members in Duke’s University Program in Ecology. They wrote this blog post during our last day of class. Bernhardt and Willis have taught this course twice to PhD students and cannot wait to repeat the experience.

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