|Effective, accurate models matter now more than ever, especially in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Princeton University Press is privileged to publish the most up-to-date textbook on quantitative models and methods in these fields. Pioneering an “active-learning” approach that encourages hands-on experience, Bobbi S. Low and her co-editor Stanton Braude have assembled a top-tier group of contributors to delve into an array of topics ranging from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and population effective size to optimal foraging and indices of biodiversity.
Biology and Earth Sciences editor Alison Kalett spoke with Dr. Low about the new textbook and the benefits of “active-learning.”
Your new book takes an “active learning” approach to teaching key ideas in biology. Can you say a bit about what that means?
There is a wealth of evidence by now that students learn better if they are engaged with the material, no matter what the topic. Rather than being talked to for an hour, if we can find ways that students can (individually, in pairs, in small groups) question and discuss the material, propose inferences from it, take apart case studies, even role play—they are likely to understand and remember the material better.
Why do you think the approach you take in this textbook is a particularly good way of teaching students ecology, evolution, behavior, and conservation?
These are some of the most “engaging” topics in all of biology. Getting hands-on experience is important, and it helps (if done right) to engage and remember the theoretical aspects correctly. In behavior, for example, you can start simply, with having students do an ethogram. They must figure out what constitutes “a” behavior, and how to describe it in a completely reliable, repeatable way. Watching, say, mallard ducks, and then discussing what everyone has seen, then collaboratively putting a “list of behaviors” together—all that engages students cognitively (and usually physically, as well). They don’t forget what they themselves have put together. It is true, tough, that almost any subject, no matter how abstract, can probably be taught this way by someone who really understands it deeply
How did you come to teach biology in this way? Why do you find it effective?
Oh, my. Well, first, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has a number of biology/ecology specialists who really know this approach. And Stan Braude, the senior author, independently had begun to work this way. So we were both doing in-class short collaborative exercises (<5 minutes)—small inference problems like optimal group size for werewolves hunting humans or cows (the data, of course, are on wolves with smaller and larger prey). Or, though solving a problem together, to discover why a dominant Groove-Billed Ani might kick her sister out of a collaborative nest, but not evict a stranger! And in discussion, because groups are smaller, one can do even more (and more types) of collaborative work. Last week in my behavioral ecology course, for example, groups of 3-4 presented their research (begun the week before) on the life history of some particular species, and what that life history implied for management and conservation.
More broadly, it’s probably useful to know that the Ecological Society of America, and the American Biology Teacher have good resources on why active learning is a useful tool, and how to do it effectively.
Can you talk about one example from the book to illustrate your approach?
Well, each exercise is structured this way! One I particularly like is one that Stan devised: for optimal foraging, it uses Halloween trick-or-treaters. The problems are all there, but every student has been a trick-or-treater. It’s hard to discover your early foraging was sub-optimal! All the exercises begin with some individual work, then sharing and critiquing all the ideas individuals have raised. Then the group interaction expands, and students must master many details for the final part, which may be a proposal, judging proposals, role-playing as an environmentalist or a hunter, and more. We find the approach really helpful: students think it is fun, and they learn and remember a lot!