Ecology and Conservation of Wildlife in the Neotropics – ACADEMICS

COURSE OBJECTIVES

The course is designed to provide students with a broad and integrated understanding of Neotropical ecology, behavioral ecology, conservation, and evolutionary biology as applied through guided and independent research projects. We aim to provide experience in experimental design, statistical analysis and science writing. These learning goals are achieved by first exposing students to the primary literature on topics germane to the processes and organisms present at our field sites. For example, during the Fall semester course the participants read, present, and discuss papers on research that has been conducted in the areas of Patagonia that we will visit. Once in Patagonia, the students conduct a series of guided and independent field-based research projects. They become familiar with the scientific process, from designing questions and posing hypotheses to collecting and analyzing data. While in the field, we conduct many different studies. Some studies will be assigned by the instructors, with specific guidelines on what data to gather and which analyses to conduct. Others are based on questions posed by the students. In some cases, individual students gather data for a few hours, and for other studies the entire class is focused on a project for a few days. We aim for students to become comfortable with this process before they design and obtain data for their own individual research project that forms a capstone field experience. The third portion of the course held during the Spring semester further refines the participants’analysis skills and provides extensive coaching as each student crafts a final research paper and presents their results to the rest of the class.

Some of the central learning goals of this class are to:

  1. Integrate important concepts in ecology, evolution, and behavioral ecology;
  2. Gain hands-on experience with experimental design, data collection, and statistical analysis;
  3. Learn to interpret and evaluate papers from the primary scientific literature;
  4. Improve the ability to present scientific results through clear and effective scientific writing;
  5. Last but not least, have fun in the field while encountering an amazing diversity of wildlife!

 

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BiOEE 2525/BiOEE 2526 are each full, two-credit, on-campus undergraduate classes offering a rich variety of academic activities and content. However, this course series is set up differently from most classes you have likely taken previously. During the Fall semester, we meet twice weekly to read and discuss relevant articles from the primary scientific and conservation literature. We will also pre-plan some of your potential research projects in Patagonia, and focus on the relevant statistical analyses that you will likely need to conduct in your own field research. During the field component of the course, you will learn to design and conduct your own field experiments, and keep field notebooks that document your insights and encounters with wildlife. Finally, once we return to Ithaca for the Spring semester you will focus on analyzing your data and on writing and presenting a research paper based on your own observations and discoveries, and discuss these observations and issues with your colleagues and professors.

We pack the two weeks of field course time full of activities and experiences; there will be very little down-time. Our goal is to give you the fundamental experiences required to become an independent scientific researcher, with skills that will help you be a better student, scientist (no matter what your eventual career path), and world citizen.

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The formal academic content of BiOEE 2525/BiOEE 2526 has four components:

  • Literature discussions
  • Scientific talks
  • Research projects
  • Natural history immersion

LITERATURE DISCUSSIONS

During the Fall semester we will hold discussions twice a week based on a reading packet of relevant scientific papers.

These papers are instrumental in understanding important themes in biology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology. They also serve as models for your own research reports. Every paper involves the animals and plants that you will see Patagonia, and often the research has been conducted in the area that we will be visiting. We will lead the first few discussions, but as the course progresses, each student will moderate the discussion of a topic (usually involving two or three thematically related papers). This exercise helps build your skills in interpreting the primary scientific literature. We emphasize discussions on experimental design and statistical analyses that will help students plan and design their independent projects in Patagonia. We track participation in these discussion sections, as it is one metric we use to calculate your final letter grade.

SCIENTIFIC TALKS

We will give several lectures on biological themes during the semester. Some of these will offer a practical introduction to the basic statistical techniques that are particularly useful for ecological and behavioral studies. While in Patagonia we meet daily to analyze and discuss data that has been collected by the class for different group projects. These meeting also help students conduct preliminary analyses on data they have gathered for their different independent projects.

RESEARCH PROJECTS

The primary academic goal of BiOEE 2525/BiOEE 2526 is to give you an intensive and high-quality experience with hands-on research.

Therefore, you spend a significant portion of your field time designing and implementing studies, sometimes alone and others in collaboration with the entire class. These projects will all aim to test an explicit ecological or behavioral hypothesis through observation or experimentation. We typically complete three or four different group projects during the course. We also conduct quick“blitz”projects at different sites, where students come up with questions and test them in a few hours. The initial projects are designed in part by the instructors, but soon you become responsible for the entire process, from brainstorming a topic through completing the analysis and written report. Lessons and strategies developed during the first group projects will help you and your classmates carry out a final project. Students design final group projects on a topic of their choice, almost entirely on their own.

We faculty take pride in holding these reports to a high standard; most of the drafts go through two or three intensive revisions before we consider them finished. We provide extensive commentary and suggestions on your work.

During the first ‘orientation’ days in the field, we will suggest many possible research topics as the group encounters different organisms and systems, but we have found that students often develop insightful questions of their own. You will be tasked with identifying possible research topics, refining the hypotheses to be tested, developing critical predictions, designing effective tests, and collecting pilot data. Once projects have been refined, you will collect the bulk of your data and write up your project in the form of a scientific paper.

NATURAL HISTORY IMMERSIONS

We spend as much time as possible in the field, both walking and driving. In the process, we will teach you as much as we can about the biology, geology, and ecology of Patagonian ecosystems.

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GRADING

All students must take both courses for a letter grade. Grades are determined by each student’s performance and participation in all of the academic activities described above, and on their general participation and engagement throughout the course.

GRADING POLICY

We seek to provide an academically stimulating and intellectually rigorous experience, and insist that participants approach the class with the same level of seriousness and dedication that they would bring to a 4-credit lab course on campus. Letter grades will be determined by a combination of engagement in the classroom and field aspects of the course, the written reports and final group presentation, the paper presentations, and participation in group discussions. As fieldwork is always unpredictable and projects can fail for unanticipated reasons, projects will be evaluated on the thoughtfulness of the project design, effort and perseverance of data collection, and the quality of the report–rather than on the formal results.

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