I am embarking on what, for me, is a bold experiment in teaching conservation ecology. This will be a case-based class that is half flipped, with the goal of focusing on complex integrated resource management decisions where conservation science has an integral role in informing management decisions. My hope is that I do not become totally flipped out by it.
Why am I doing this? Mostly, frustration with trying to teach previous conservation ecology classes. The challenge for conservation ecology is that it is the application of any of a number of the ecological sciences to conservation problems, rather than a science unto itself. As a consequence, teaching conservation ecology generally consist of teaching the ecology that describes how scientists quantify threats to nature. Inbreeding depression in small populations, habitat loss viability assessment of threatened populations, loss of ecosystem function because of dysfunction in species interactions (e.g., pollination); the list is very long. and so each garners superficial treatment.
As conservation science looks for solutions, rather than simply quantifying threats, additional areas are critical. Again, the litany of scientific possibilities is long: captive breeding, reserve design, biodiversity and ecosystem function studies, reconciliation ecology, restoration ecology. With this list we can now add the additional core fields of conservation science: law, sociology, political science, philosophy to integrate what we know about the physics, chemistry and biology of conservation to why (ethics), who (sociology), how (law, political science) to the more biological forms of what (vulnerability assessment) why (threats assessment), where (macroecology, biogeography) and others. The breadth of trying to teach conservation ecology was impossible; expanding this to cover conservation science is simply ridiculous: a huge, very shallow pool.
The obvious, but flawed, approach is to teach conservation ecology as a survey of applications of ecological sciences (e.g., how demography translates to viability prediction). After teaching conservation ecology as a broad survey class that dutifully explored how each of the many branches of the organismal biological sciences addresses which threatened parts of nature alongside what social theories, laws and political structures foster action on those threats, I have concluded that this approach provides the veneer of conservation science, but not the essence conservation science.
A new approach is needed. Hence I will, this year, conduct an experiment in teaching by revising the course goals, switching from a general survey of tools to address conservation problems to a project based approach, partially flipping the classroom, to create the space for students to apply critical thinking skills to complex conservation problems in order to better understand how people decide to make choices that impact nature. But, I will retain lecture space (hence only partly flipping the classroom), in order to cover what the class decides is critical information needs peculiar to conservation science.
The triumph of conservation science over conservation biology provides educators an opportunity to wrest back what has become a deep dark litany of detailed scientific facts that typically plagues science classes. Memorize these amino acids, know the steps in that biochemical cycle; memorize the leading causes of population declines. Understanding that conservation science is comprised of complex socio-ecological suites of attributes that are variably and locally expressed points toward the need for synthesizing many information streams to recommend a path that may work for conservation. Finding paths through the socio-ecological landscape that leads to socially acceptable, yet favorable outcomes for nature, is an art that relies heavily on the science that informs actions. This is the essence of conservation science.
If we can convey the complexity of understanding the decision context in order to tool the science to meet the management need, rather than tooling the question to meet the curiosity of the investigator, then it will be a success. If we dive into a morass of complexity and confusion and do not manage to make our way back out again, then it will be a failure. Stay tuned! I am also experimenting with laying it out there, week by week, and reporting on our progress, not yet knowing if this will be a success or a train-wreck. Rather than dominate our group blog site (Nature's Confluence), I will provide weekly updates and space for people in the class to do so as well over on my personal webpage. As of now, just the syllabus is posted.
Google chrome users: click here to download a RSS extension