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Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Gass, C. L. 2002. Introduction to the special feature: educating for integration and sustainability. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 31. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art31/

Editorial, part of Special Feature on Interactive Science Education

Introduction to the Special Feature: Educating for Integration and Sustainability

Clifton Lee Gass

University of British Columbia

KEY WORDS: interactive engagement, interdisciplinary education, introduction.

Published: January 15, 2002

The first four paragraphs of Holling's (1999) introduction to a special feature of Conservation Ecology are also a perfect introduction to this one. He suggested that ecologists help give science a bad name in some circles, because they tend to assume they know what needs to be known to manage complex systems when, in fact, they don't. Among other things, we ecologists often lack the philosophical, theoretical, and empirical foundations for understanding the systems we try to manage. We also tend not to be in the habit of thinking carefully from perspectives other than our own, and of listening as well as we might to those who speak a different language. Presumably, specialists of any kind often lack knowledge of the human history of regions, understanding and appreciation of how cultures and ecosystems evolve, and humility to keep looking after they think they know.

Holling's subtitle, Just complex enough for understanding: just simple enough for communication, pointed to a major challenge of educating scientists, policy makers, and the public. How can we communicate the essence of science to others without diluting it? How can we make that essence accessible to others, not just as a collection of facts, but as a way of learning about nature and about ourselves? That is the subject of this special feature.

In launching Conservation Ecology, Holling (1998) argued that, although a reductionist science of the parts contributes valuable information about complex systems, it can contribute little to the strategic development of whole disciplines. For that we require what Holling termed a "science of integration," a science of relationships and of wholes. If that is true, then how should the scientists of integration be educated? How should any scientist be educated? No one knows the answer to these questions, partly because our educational objectives are far from clear, and partly because teachers also tend to behave as if they know.

Exciting things are happening in science education (defined very broadly for our purposes here), and this issue focuses on a small portion of them in the context of education for sustainability. These papers are by no means a random sample of the vast literature on science education, but rather a biased subsample of what could have been included. In that sense, the issue is not a review either. Most of the contributions are more like essays or editorials than scientific papers, because they are relatively long on vision and short on hard evidence of the validity of those visions. This was a matter of editorial policy, because I wanted to stimulate thought and discussion and encourage experimentation, more than to prove anything. I encouraged authors to write in more imaginative, less carefully documented voices than any of us are normally comfortable using. In essence, I encouraged them to trust readers to interpret what they say in light of our objectives.

Before it was published, I received a copy of Richard Hake's (1998) study of the growth of conceptual understanding in undergraduate physics courses and it excited me greatly. His analysis strongly supported the idea that what Hake calls "interactive engagement" powerfully influences the development of conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics. Physics students who spend significant amounts of time talking with each other about what they only partly understand (and partial understanding is key), learn the material about twice as well conceptually as students in courses in which such conversations don't occur. Not only that, but this result is independent of the background of students and the quality of lecturers. Interactive engagement also helps students do physics problems better.

In my opinion, Hake's insight about learning physics is critically important to learning a science of integration and interaction, and it rests on a remarkably rigorous analysis of the available information. His work explains a great deal about how science students learn, provides a conceptual framework for thinking about how to speed and deepen learning, and is difficult to ignore. When Buzz Holling asked me to put this special feature together, I knew immediately that I wanted Richard Hake to contribute. His paper, Lessons from the physics education reform effort, unifies the other papers and gives them one voice.

Hake's paper helped to explain something that Julyet Benbasat and I, and our colleagues, had experienced in our interdisciplinary team teaching. Wonderful things happened when rigorous multi-way conversations broke out in our classes, especially when they included more rather than fewer students, and when they promoted a sense of community. It was especially effective when we stayed out of the conversations as "professors" and entered them as participants on the level playing field of logic, playing by the rules of engagement in scientific discourse. Paradoxically, our viewing the world from the separate perspectives of our disciplines helped rather than hindered these conversations, and Hake's ideas helped to resolve the paradox. Our paper, Reflections on integration, interaction, and community: the Science One program and beyond, is about interdisciplinary undergraduate science programs at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

About a decade before our new programs were born, Carlos Galindo-Leal joined me as a Teaching Assistant in my first term of teaching an upper-division service course in human ecology for non-science students. We created and taught the course as true partners, and learned from each other. I learned a lot. For example, I learned to think about relationships among Homo sylvaticus (the people who live on the land), Homo eliticus (the favored few in the local community, region, and country), and Homo exoticus (the experts from afar who advise on how to do things). Carlos' metaphor is a gem all by itself. Some of what we discovered about learning became part of our new programs. Other parts went south, when Galindo went to the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. In Design and analysis of conservation projects in Latin America: an integrative approach to training, Galindo describes a set of very successful field courses in ecological theory and practice that he created while working there. The courses are for working conservation professionals from across Latin America. They are taught in many countries by teams in which research ecologists from afar work closely with scientists who know the local system through personal experience, and they are thriving.

D'Arcy Davis-Case (The reflective practitioner: teaching and learning in community-based forest management) was one of the guests in our Human Ecology course. She was an MSc student in forestry using the tools of sociology and anthropology to understand the dynamics of reforestation in the clearcuts of British Columbia. She moved on to the Community Forestry group at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, where she began her field work in reforestation aid projects throughout the developing world. Her paper is written from the clear perspective of a humble Homo exoticus working with local people who have lived on the same land for generations but who need outside help to survive as communities. Not only does Davis-Case know relatively little about each local system when she enters it as a consultant, but she may not even share a common language with the people who live there. In spite of these and other disadvantages, her work illustrates that it is possible to foster deep, integrative learning in such situations. She engages the community in conversations with each other about their situation, and this engages her, in her role as a consultant, in listening, learning, and gentle intervention. In my opinion, this paper offers many important lessons for educators of all kinds, in addition to giving a fascinating view of the risks and opportunities of applied conservation science.

David Lertzman's work in aboriginal Rediscovery programs for children (Rediscovering rites of passage: education, transformation and the transition to sustainability) has fascinated me since I met him at a party early in his PhD program at UBC. I already knew from experience that community-based approaches to teaching and learning contribute powerfully to intellectual growth, especially when they promote interactive engagement among participants. I also knew that field courses can be dynamite. Lertzman's work encouraged me to wonder whether communities that run Rediscovery programs to recreate their cultures and make them sustainable may also develop more sustainable natural resource policy. I'm still wondering about that, but Lertzman's view of cultural renewal encourages optimism and offers insights about the learning of ecology and related subjects that are very relevant to the theme of this issue. It also encourages us to think of our current ecological sustainability problems in terms of our own cultural renewal.

Two papers are still in progress and will be published soon. The first of them, Theories for sustainable futures: lessons from an interdisciplinary short course by Garry Peterson, Lance Gunderson, and me, describes a course for advanced graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and young professionals that we offered at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara. In addition to immersing the students in relevant theory and practice, the course promoted strong interactive engagement among them and a spirit of cross-disciplinary collaboration. The team-taught course was informed by our undergraduate experience at UBC and also by the experiences of Peterson, Gunderson, Holling, and others in running interactive workshops for working conservation professionals. To an extent that cannot go unacknowledged, it was inspired by a remarkably effective graduate course that Buzz Holling taught at UBC in the mid-1970s and later at the University of Florida. I didn't take that course or help teach it, but I talked with Buzz and his students about it and witnessed the transformation of the students. (Incidentally, four recent Conservation Ecology authors took the UBC version of Holling's course: Ken Lertzman, Glenn Sutherland (Sutherland et al. 2000), Carlos Galindo-Leal (this issue), and David Marmorek (Marmorek and Peters this issue).) A key element of planning the short course was to consider the set of information we wanted the students to learn in contrast to the set of skills they needed to learn it with. This planning matrix helped us imagine how various process and content dimensions might unfold before, during, and after a 3-week course on sustainability.

The final paper, Teaching and learning ecological modeling over the web by Alexey Voinov, came very late to the special feature when Holling passed it to me for review only a couple of months ago. The digital infrastructure to facilitate communication that Voinov offers excited us with its potential, so Holling invited him to join the special feature. This required speedier revision than we could manage, but the result will appear soon. It proposes a way to deliver courses in modeling of complex systems over the web, enabling participants in distant locations to interact creatively in their efforts, and relates well to the other papers in this special issue. Perhaps because it was part of the original vision of the NCEAS short course (Peterson et al. unpublished manuscript) to run sessions in several parts of the world simultaneously, we consider it appropriate to include Voinov's contribution in the special feature.

I look forward to participating in any discussion this set of articles may generate. As Hake showed so clearly in the case of students coming to understand the laws of motion, interactive engagement is a big part of where it's at in education, and we are learning that it is at least as important where disciplines intersect. If it is also at the heart of institutional learning, then a forum such as Conservation Ecology provides could work wonders to facilitate how we educate scientists of integration.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.


Hake, R. R. 1998. Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Am. J. Phys. 66(1):64-74. [online] URL: http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/.

Holling, C. S. 1998. Two cultures of ecology. Conservation Ecology [online] 2(2): 4. Available from the Internet. URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol2/iss2/art4.

Holling, C. S. 1999. Introduction to the special feature: just complex enough for understanding, just simple enough for communication. Conservation Ecology 3(2):1. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss2/.

Marmorek, D., and C. Peters. 2001. Finding a PATH toward scientific collaboration: insights from the Columbia River Basin. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 8. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art8.

Sutherland, G. D., A. S. Harestad, K. Price, and K. P. Lertzman. 2000. Scaling of natal dispersal distances in terrestrial birds and mammals. Conservation Ecology 4(1):16. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol4/iss1/art16.

Address of Correspondent:
Clifton Lee Gass
Director, Integrated Sciences Program
Co-Director, Coordinated Sciences Program
Department of Zoology
University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4
Phone: (604) 822 5842
Fax: (604) 822 2416

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