Conservation biology, in a month

IMG_4162This January, I had the the immense good fortune to be invited to teach a “JanPlan” at Colby College, in Waterville Maine. I’d never designed and led a course before, but I knew I wanted to get some teaching experience before becoming a professor. The Colby JanPlan ended up being a perfect opportunity because my NSF funding ended in December, my supervisor at WashU was willing to push back my hiring date to February, and a single, one-month course seemed like a great way to dip a toe into teaching without having to commit to a full semester. Whew, did that ever turn out to be naive…

The final bonus was that both of my parents teach at Colby (Environmental Studies and Econ) and so I’d be able to stay at home, commute in to work with them, and not have to worry about as many logistics as I would living in a new town for a month.

The only thing left to do was design a course and hope students would sign up! As alluded to in the previous post, here’s the course description I pitched:

Biodiversity Conservation in a rapidly changing world: Humans are changing landscapes at an unprecedented pace with cascading consequences for ecosystems. How do scientists measure what has been lost and decide how to protect what remains? This course explores topics in human land-use, biodiversity conservation, rapid evolution, and extinction in the Anthropocene. Using museum specimens of extinct lizard populations as a case study, we will discuss the value of museum collections, the tradeoffs between species conservation and human development, and future avenues for biodiversity conservation. Through lectures, hands-on lab work, and reading both scientific and popular-press articles, students will learn about – and debate – the challenges of biodiversity conservation in a rapidly changing world.

Despite my initial trepidation, students signed up. And then really signed up! The course was full after only a couple of days and had a wait-list longer than the course cap of 20. I let the dean’s office sort out the priority for who got into the class – as an outsider it didn’t seem fair for me to be making decisions without a better understanding of how this course would fit into the various departments and major requirements around campus. Ultimately, the registrar opted to fill the class with first- and second-year students, many of whom didn’t have a background in biology or environmental studies. This resulted in a wonderfully diverse array of backgrounds and interests in the class that became a huge plus when we started discussing topics in conservation.

One of the hardest parts for me in designing the course was figuring out what to keep in and what to leave out. Conservation biology is an enormous umbrella. There’s so much I wanted to make sure to talk about, but I knew that jumping around trying to mention everything would have just resulted in a nonsensical Pollock of lectures. Moreover, with so many students just starting their college careers I knew I’d have a lot of fronts where I couldn’t assume any background knowledge. What really saved the day for ultimately putting the class together was being able to find a handful of other conservation biology syllabi online and mining some of their great ideas. My hope with this series of posts this spring is to return the favor.

Far and away my most-read blog post is this one from 2012: “How to write a bad research proposal.” I get it now: ready-to-go classroom activities are a huge help when trying to teach a lesson and do it in a way that isn’t just lecture, so, here we go. Attached below is the PDF syllabus for my Biodiversity Conservation course at Colby College. Teachers, please feel free to mine it for anything that you like! Thanks in particular to Professors Meredith Holgerson and Brad Cardinale who’s ideas were especially informative in creating mine. I’m drafting out the next few posts, focusing on each of the weeks, to tell you what worked and where I saw immediate room for improvement. Stay tuned.

BI197 Biodiversity Conservation Syllabus [PDF]BI197 Biodiversity Conservation Syllabus




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