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Harnessing bits and bytes to transform ecology education
Robert D Stevenson Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts–Boston, Boston, MA (robert.stevenson@umb.edu) Kenneth M Klemow Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA Louis J Gross Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN


ll sciences, including ecology, are transformed by advances in technology. Computer-based data collection, analyses, and modeling are creating new scientific opportunities, and advances in communication are facilitating partnerships among colleagues. Technologies allow ecologists to automate measurements of physiological and behavioral responses of individual organisms, model landscape changes based on remotely sensed imagery, uncover complex relationships through analyses of large datasets, and foster long-distance collaborations in near-real-time. These developments have had a tangible impact on teaching, especially at the undergraduate level. Ecologists who teach undergraduates now routinely incorporate PowerPoint for lectures, use the internet to obtain images, and employ simulations to enhance comprehension of basic concepts (Klemow et al. 2009). Simulations and data analysis through Excel, EcoBeaker, and Stella are incorporated in labs (Long et al. 2014). Automated sensors connected to dataloggers allow students to collect a wealth of data that can be analyzed to produce detailed and comprehensive assessments of environmental parameters affecting the growth and distribution of diverse components of biota. Digital technologies to advance ecology education also continue to expand, providing the opportunity to incorporate handheld devices, cell phone applications, and data exchange and management systems into teaching. Here we summarize some of the advances in the classroom, laboratory, and field, and profile one or two examples for each setting.

n Technologies to promote engagement and feedback
Ecology instruction in both the classroom and lab is benefiting from a wide range of technological innovations. Student response systems (eg clickers) and education management systems (eg Blackboard, Moodle) are being widely adopted across disciplines. These allow rapid assessment of

student conceptual understanding and sharing of diverse materials related to course topics. The EcoEd Digital Library (Klemow et al. 2009) and Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (D’Avanzo et al. 2006), sponsored by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), allow faculty to share discipline-specific digital resources and methods to promote active learning and critical thinking. Simulation and gaming technologies are well suited to improve ecology education, by permitting users to “slow down” or “speed up” time, move across spatial scales, and record data with virtual instruments. Simulation applications for ecology classes such as SimBio’s EcoBeaker are in widespread use, and NetLogo offers a vetted set of diverse simulations for basic ecology and evolution courses. Gaming technologies allow students to use goalseeking approaches that help teach science concepts (Honey and Hilton 2011). Podcasting technologies hold particular promise for ecology education. Podcasts are digital files that contain sound (usually spoken word) and images that can be created on computers or handheld devices and then uploaded to a server. Students can then download the files and view them on-demand. Using devices that digitally capture audio and video, ecology instructors can record lectures in the field. Faculty can also request that students create their own podcasts on a selected topic, thereby encouraging students to think creatively about content as well as presentation. Students can create digital guides for a local trail or campus natural area, enhancing opportunities for eventual fieldwork. Such trail guides make excellent service-learning projects for students. Advancements in data presentation and analysis technologies allow students to construct their own knowledge through data-discovery techniques (see http://serc.carleton.edu/serc/site_guides/data.html). The sea of ecological and supporting data is vast. Large repositories include the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), ESA’s Ecological Archives, and Dryad. Many of these are now accessible through DataONE (www.dataone.org). Making the leap from data to knowledge requires skill on the part of the ecology instructor. Hurdles often include: (1) the idiosyncratic nature of ecological datasets, (2) restricted access to many datasets, and (3) data-analysis software that necessitates a steep learning curve. To help overcome those issues, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) developed a workflow system called Science Pipes, which allows students to visualize trends in data without the need to view the actual data or rely on complex analysis programs. Students use a symbolic approach to select from available datasets, filter the data
? The Ecological Society of America

Transforming ecology education

RD Stevenson et al.
(a) (b)

by appropriate categories, analyze the data, and define a visualization system. The result is a well-rendered image that can be easily viewed onscreen, printed, or included in reports. Datasets within Science Pipes include the WWF WildFinder database for plants and animals, the Avian Knowledge Network datasets for birds, cemetery demography, USDA’s Forest Inventory, adaptive radiation of Darwin’s finches, and the North American Pollen Database. Guides to some datasets are available through ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library.


data forms

Handheld devices and associated communication technologies can revolutionize field trips. Ecology depends on diverse approaches to fieldwork, including natural journaling, classic data forms, wireless sensor networks, instrumentation platforms, and airborne observatories. The internet has made assembling information for fieldwork much easier. Whether it is a survey route for sampling soils stored on a cell phone or digital images of dragonflies on a tablet computer, rapid advances in mobile technologies now allow us to take a personalized electronic library to the field. Birding apps such as iBird Pro and the Sibley Guide feature images, distribution maps, descriptions, and calls, providing more information than traditional field guides. The birding app BirdsEye, by pulling data from CLO’s eBird project, shows where birds have recently been sighted. Similarly, apps for plant (Leafsnap) and insect (Audubon Guides) identification will make fieldwork easier and assist in developing new systematists. Ecological field study involves recording data. Digital technologies are revolutionizing that practice. CyberTracker and iNaturalist (Figure 1a) are two examples of cell phone based programs that facilitate data collection in the field. People interested in plant phenology should investigate Project BudBurst (sponsored by NEON) or Nature’s Notebook (sponsored by the National Phenology Network) (Figure 1b). What’s Invasive!, Creek Watch, and Project Noah are just three of the many more mobile apps that allow scientists and citizen scientists to record data using cell phones.


Figure 1. (a) Screenshot of the iNaturalist app recording an observation of dandelions from a photograph taken with a cell phone. (b) Screenshot of the Nature’s Notebook app recording an observation about dandelion phenology.

ous systems unusable; for example, many Excel-based analyses have become difficult as a result of the elimination of the Analysis ToolPak in Excel 2008. As an alternative, R (or RStudio with its graphical interface) is being adopted in undergraduate courses. Ecologists are especially cautioned against letting technology distract students from their natural surroundings. While simulation applications and games can successfully illustrate concepts such as population growth, competition, and predator/prey interactions, most fail to capture the uncertainty and capricious nature of field observations and experiments.

n Conclusions
The pace of technological change is dazzling. Educators from kindergarten to college are adapting technologies to create student-centered classrooms with exciting opportunities for personalized learning. The National Education Technology Plan (NETP 2010) argued that this transformation will, in fact, be powered by technology. The changing paradigm of ecology research – embodied by LTER and NEON, in which teams of scientists work together to advance ecological science – can fruitfully be applied to ecological education. Deciding which software and hardware can best advance ecology teaching goals often poses a major challenge. To ensure success in enhancing effective ecology education, we argue that coordinated effort is needed to make the technology more than a toy and less of a distraction.

n Challenges of technology
Technology poses challenges for instructors and students alike. Dependence on technology can be vexing when devices break, lose power, or are misplaced. Despite their reputation as being digital natives, many of today’s college students are lost when using more advanced software applications. Moreover, students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have less familiarity with technologies than their more affluent counterparts, forcing faculty members to devote time to teaching technology and not ecology (Cheng and Lane-Cummings 2003). Furthermore, shifts to new computing hardware and software often render previ? The Ecological Society of America

n Acknowledgements and References
See online material.


n Technology in the field: electronic libraries and

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