Teaching biodiversity

This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate environmental science class: Biodiversity Issues and Field Methods. It’s not that common for PhD students to be able to design and teach a course, but thanks to an Ann T. and Robert M. Bass Instructional fellowship, that’s what I’m doing!

We had the first course meeting just last Friday and I’ve got an eclectic group of 11 bright Duke undergrads. Some are environmental policy majors, while the rest have backgrounds from all across the course catalogue: computer science, economics, theatre… I’m thrilled to have an international student enrolled, a young man from South Africa. He has already offered a glimpse of what should be a valuable outside perspective: with all the amazing African megafauna to choose from he announced his favorite animal as a squirrel!   I didn’t see that one coming…

The goal of the course is for the students to become familiar with biodiversity survey methods and issues that affect biodiversity at local and global scales. We will spend much of our class time exploring the wealth of ecosystems that characterize Duke’s largely forested campus. We will visit old growth forest fragments, the newly opened ‘Duke Pond’ and the Stream and Wetland Assessment and Management Park (SWAMP). In a pragmatic sense, these areas can all be considered ‘infrastructure,’ providing specific functions to campus operations, such as water management. They are maintained with aesthetics in mind, for sure, but otherwise the organisms that inhabitant them are often invisible and forgotten.

As successive generations become further and further isolated from the natural world, it becomes more and more difficult to grapple with the urgency of the ongoing global biodiversity crisis, the so-called sixth mass extinction. My goal is to open these students’ eyes to astounding nature sitting right in their ‘backyards,’ to use these local resources as teaching tools for global biodiversity challenges.

Hopefully by the course end, the students will have a scientific understanding of local biodiversity and an appreciation for how it all fits into a bigger picture. It’s a bit of an experiment, but even if it doesn’t go perfectly to plan, the process should be enriching for all and hopefully a lot of fun!

You don’t need me to tell you that birds will feature prominently. With the popularity of birdwatching it’s easy to argue that feathered creatures are the best ambassadors the natural world has. We will learn to spot and identify wild birds across campus, survey for window collision victims and even visit the Prairie Ridge Ecostation in Raleigh to mist net and band them.

The students will be submitting observations to the citizen scientist databases, iNaturalist and eBird, as well as documenting their experiences through blogs. Some of the more talented writers may even be able to publish entries on the blog, Ecowatch. So the course should lead to some valuable datasets and written accounts of Duke’s natural resources.

Thanks to the Bass family for this opportunity. It will be an exciting semester.