Teaching Continental-Scale Ecology with EREN

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Title of Abstract: Teaching Continental-Scale Ecology with EREN

Name of Author: Laurie Anderson
Author Company or Institution: Ohio Wesleyan University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Ecology and Environmental Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: authentic research across multiple study sites, Encouraging collaborative
Keywords: ecology, research, continental, collaborative, network

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN) is a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Networks-Undergraduate Biology Education Program. Created by a team of faculty from 14 undergraduate institutions, EREN’s mission is to create a model for collaborative ecological research that generates high-quality, publishable data involving undergraduate students and faculty across a continental-scale network of research sites. EREN embodies several of the recommendations of the 2009 Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education Report, particularly (1) engaging students as active participants in authentic research, (2) facilitating learning in a cooperative context through student participation in collaborative research with their peers at multiple institutions, and (3) supporting faculty development by providing opportunities for hands-on training to incorporate EREN projects into ecology teaching.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: EREN invites faculty in the network to propose research projects that are scientifically interesting, collaborative across sites and institutions, appropriate for undergraduate participation, and feasible for institutions with limited research resources. EREN facilitates online communication between the lead scientists and network members, who then volunteer to become collaborators on the project. EREN also provides funding for annual meetings where project ideas, research protocols, pedagogical strategies, and project data are discussed. As a Research Coordination Network, EREN provides funds for networking and idea generation, not for research support. Project ideas that emerged within EREN have been developed into grant proposals to other funding sources, or have been carried out using the resources of the individual institutions involved. EREN currently has five projects in the data collection phase, and two others that are starting data collection during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: EREN uses online surveys of its members (faculty join EREN through a free, online application process) and post-meeting surveys to assess the effectiveness of network events and EREN as an organization. Individualized assessment tools are being developed to measure student learning goals within each of the unique EREN projects.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: There are currently 214 members of EREN representing over 180 different institutions, most of which are primarily undergraduate institutions. The response to EREN through surveys of members has been overwhelmingly positive, with people finding particular value in the annual meetings of EREN and citing interactions at these meetings as important opportunities for professional development. EREN faculty also have an excellent record of using EREN research projects as teaching tools: a 2012 survey of members indicated that 1,349 students have been involved with data collection or used data from an EREN project in courses, independent studies or summer research experiences. We are continuing to develop targeted assessment tools within each project to measure student learning.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Coordinating research across multiple sites and participants adds a layer of complexity to any experiment. We continue to work on improving EREN’s online tools and services, and investigating existing data archives, to make communication and data-sharing as easy as possible for project participants. We also continue to encourage project leaders to budget additional time and personnel for project management and coordination, in addition to resources for data collection and analysis. Quality control of student-collected data is also an ongoing concern. We are consulting with our colleagues who run large-scale citizen science projects on this issue.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: EREN has an active and frequently-updated website at www.erenweb.org, an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn account, and a Twitter account that is used during EREN events. EREN is also a regular presence at the Ecological Society of America meetings, and has held a Special Session and two Networking Lunches at the meetings since 2011. EREN Lead Scientists have also presented posters at the last two meetings showcasing preliminary results of EREN projects. At EREN’s 2012 All Members Meeting, EREN invited members of partner organizations to attend as guests and present posters to educate EREN members about these opportunities. EREN will be submitting an application for an organized oral session at the next ESA meeting and will hold its next All Members meeting in the summer of 2014.

Acknowledgements: EREN is run using a distributed leadership model, where critical decisions are discussed by the EREN Leadership Team, currently composed of founding members of EREN, RCN grant PIs, and lead scientists of EREN projects. The EREN Leadership Team members are Laurel Anderson (Ohio Wesleyan University), David Bowne (Elizabethtown College), Jerald Dosch (Macalester College), Amy Downing (Ohio Wesleyan University), Tracy Gartner (Carthage College), Martha Hoopes (Mount Holyoke College), Daniel Hornbach (Macalester College), David Johnson (Ohio Wesleyan University), Karen Kuers (Sewanee: The University of the South), Erin Lindquist (Meredith College), Kathleen LoGiudice (Union College), Jose-Luis Machado (Swarthmore College), Timothy McCay (Colgate University), Bob Pohlad (Ferrum College), Carolyn Thomas (Ferrum College), Kathleen Shea (St. Olaf’s College), and Jeffrey Simmons (Mount Saint Mary’s University).