Intensive laboratory experiences could help to safely keep field-based disciplines in the field

By Marcus Lashley and Robert A. McCleery–read the full paper here.

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have long espoused the value of experiential learning in nature. Getting students outside to experience the aspects of biology that they are studying is an effective way to enhance learning by allowing students first-hand experience with the concepts, practices, and processes they have been studying. Over the past few decades, educators have warned that these experiences, however, are becoming rarer in college curricula because of ever changing societal constraints and practical considerations. Slowly transitioning away from using these field experiences to enhance learning has been seemingly inevitable.  Yet the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic forced in a matter of days, classrooms, regardless of discipline, into emergency remote instruction to complete this transition.

For field-based disciplines such as ecology and evolutionary biology, this rapid transition was particularly challenging because of the important field components to learning. However, the pandemic also aligned the interest of ecologist and evolutionary biologist globally on tackling the issue of safely retaining these important components. While it is not clear how long this pandemic will last, what is clear, is that the unprecedented alignment in interest among our colleagues and the necessity of exploring alternative approaches to pedagogy, may have spawned the rapid development of ideas for strategies that are robust to the health concerns the pandemic has demanded but may also provide the opportunity for sustainable approaches into the future. The special issue “Taking learning online in ecology and evolution” in the academic practice section of Ecology and Evolution is a perfect example of our colleagues coming together to present these ideas. The editorial provides a brief overview of the purpose of the special issue, data on how the pandemic has affected our learning choices, and references some of the ideas covered (i.e., Lashley et al. 2020).

We presented an approach in that special issue that we intend to implement in upcoming semesters in Lashley and McCleery (2020). Our idea was to take the traditional short duration, recurring weekly lab experiences commonly used in classroom in the U.S.A. over the course of months and condense that experience into an immersive, “Intensive laboratory experience.” In this approach, much of the content that would traditionally be taught in lecture for the course could be delivered in person or online like usual but then paired with field experiences that occur over a 1-2 week time-period at a remote site.

This approach has a number of potential advantages to the previous model both during the pandemic and beyond. First, intensive laboratory experiences at remote sites can keep students and faculty safe from exposure to COVID-19 by allowing us to test and then isolate all participants (students and instructors) as a group. Second, these experiences fit more easily into student’s schedules reducing interference with jobs, family, and other commitments that might limit participation. Third, without the constraints of class periods and being onsite eliminates wasted travel time and allows flexibility in timing to capture time-sensitive events in nature such as migrations, flowering, dawn-chorus, etc. Some research also suggests that working in natural settings makes learning more enjoyable, and enhances critical thinking, problem solving, self-confidence, and long-term knowledge retention. Finally, working and living together, even over a short period of time enhances student’s participation, leadership, independence, and confidence which may foster interpersonal skills and development of relationships with faculty, professionals, and other students.

We are excited to incorporate these changes into our courses and plan to rigorously evaluate successes and failures of the approach. Because we have both taught these courses a number of times, we already have a number of experiences for comparison. Also, in our paper, we provided examples of how we intend to deliver material and structure the intensive laboratory experiences to help facilitate adoption by our colleagues. We hope this information will be useful for others faced with redesigning their courses to suit the current issues imposed by the pandemic and the ever changing circumstances of society.

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