In 2011, ESA was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (Award #DUE-1044359), titled: Digital Resource Discovery and Dynamic Learning Communities for a Changing Biology (DRD). This project was developed as a partnership among the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the Botanical Society of America (BSA), the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology (Science Pipes), the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), and the Society for Economic Botany (SEB). More recently, we have the additional support of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).
ESA’s longstanding EcoEdDL serves as the DRD project’s testbed for development. This includes technology development on the one hand, and best practices know-how such as putting in place effective community engagement programs, efficient peer review criteria and workflow and program evaluation. Developing appropriate copyright policies and sustainability plans are also an essential component of the project.
The Botanical Society of America has a demo site of its brand new digital library nearly ready and is expected to invite submissions from its members fairly soon. SSE and SEB are eager to begin their digital collections with the completion of proposed improvements to the CWIS cataloging platform. This project will prepare SSE and SEB to become collaborators in BEN and participate in NSDL. The four society libraries will remain distinct as each community works to build its own unique resource collections. However, it is envisioned that users will be able to collectively search across the four collaborating digital libraries.
The goal of the DRD project is to collaboratively facilitate the discovery of high quality educational resources based on current scientific findings and research data contributed by researchers that will lead to a transformative high school and undergraduate biology education. This effort will be guided by education research and take advantage of new developments in digital technologies.
Our objectives are to:
By the end of the project period, we seek to position participating digital libraries as valued online resources for educators and as a viable vehicle for researchers to disseminate the latest science content for education.
The DRD project was designed to respond to four demanding challenges:
Place of Quantitative Skills in Biology
Recent dramatic developments in the biological sciences call the community to confront the complexities and the highly interconnected nature of environmental and biological systems. So that they can participate in societal discussions about the vulnerabilities and resilience of living systems, today’s students must be motivated to propose solutions based on scientifically credible information (USGRCP 2009; AAAS 2010, 2011; NRC 2009). This requires that we provide students with authentic and meaningful opportunities to collect, manipulate, visualize, and interpret real data. In practice, providing opportunities for students to work with data in the classroom is challenging because of technical and logistical requirements and a paucity of relevant user-friendly tools, despite the fact that data is available publicly in various forms.
These opportunities and challenges were affirmed at the Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education summit. The report from the Summit (AAAS 2010) noted that “undergraduates need to understand the process of science, the interdisciplinary nature of the new biology, and how science is closely integrated within society.”
It called for competency in communication and collaboration, basic quantitative understanding and “systems-level approaches to biological discovery and analysis,” including five overarching core concepts:
We will aim to prioritize those topics and address resource gaps that will contribute to a transformative biology education as we work within our sub-disciplines through this project.
Key Survey Findings: Search for Quality Digital Resources
In a 2009 ESA survey of ecology faculty (N=342) (Klemow et al. 2009), we learned that those who taught at least one class with ecological content overwhelmingly use some digital media in their courses (Klemow et al 2009). According to the study, the most commonly sought resources include photographs, figures or tables to use in slideshows or handouts. Faculty members also occasionally searched for lab exercises, lecture activities, field activities, and ideas to help them teach a particular concept. Faculty were also compelled to go beyond their textbook resources because they sought materials on current research developments (96%), items that conveyed real-world ecological issues of relevance to their students (95%), and additional coverage on a topic than was available in their textbook (92%). Respondents overwhelmingly (84%) agreed that peer review for accuracy was very important and 61% thought peer review for educational value was very important. This survey indicated that our digital libraries have a key role to play to aid in the discovery of current research findings that can be incorporated into the classroom.
Facilitating Quality Contributions
A second survey 2010 (to be published) looked at the need for resources covering current research developments and the frequently cited “lack of time” as the primary reason for low contributions by research faculty to EcoEdDL. 345 respondents participated. An overwhelming 87.6% majority agreed that ecology researchers have a responsibility to share their research findings for education purposes.
Other than lab exercises, almost half believed that it will only take between 1-4 hours to prepare simplified tables and charts, simplified datasets that students can analyze, as well as raw data that students can process and analyze on their own. When asked how much time they feel they can devote to developing resources from their research, suitable for undergraduate ecology education, more than 75% responded that they had at least 1 hour to spare per month. Just 43.6% (n= 335) of respondents felt concerns about intellectual property rights of sharing their unpublished data to undergraduates. This indicates that using publicly available research data and appealing to researchers to contribute their published data may be the path of least resistance for our efforts.
Two major factors competing for researchers’ availability is the time for administrative duties and pressing research as well as the perception that such activity will not be valued by their superiors. When asked what the key components of an ESA-sponsored program should be to facilitate the development of educational materials based on their research, the top of the wish list were: identifying educational partners, offering web resources on effective education research, and creating a community of researchers and educators.
Sustaining and Innovating a Learning Community
To further understand the future direction for EcoEdDL, ESA organized a workshop in late March 2010, EcoEdDL: Strategies and Technologies to Support Outstanding Ecology Education, (DUE-1015880), which brought together 32 participants from diverse backgrounds, including ecology researchers, ecology faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, ESA leadership, technology experts, leaders of NSDL and a consultant with experience in sustaining digital media projects.
Participants highlighted the potential for EcoEdDL to serve as a hub for learning communities and the important role of research data in ecology education. In particular, they emphasized the need for 1) a strong core repository of high quality resources on a variety of topics, including resources to teach analytical skills and 2) flexible, adaptable value-added services that allow for customizable recombination and reuse of resources, as well as access to data visualization, models and statistical tools.