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Dr. A. Wade Boykin

Dr. Mary McKenna
February 2005

Dr. McKenna currently teaches General Ecology, an intermediate-level undergraduate course,  and Terrestrial Community Ecology, a graduate/undergraduate course , that has also been extensively revised and renamed (formerly “Plant Populations and Communities”).  She is also developing a new undergraduate course (Ethnobotany: Plants in Human Culture) that is expected to be taught in fall, 2006.  Active learning is encouraged throughout all her courses, and laboratories emphasize open-ended research projects conducted individually or in research teams.   The intermediate level course (General Ecology) involves students in the scientific method through literature review, learning research techniques, data collection, statistical analysis, graphical presentation of data, scientific communication (PowerPoint) and peer review.  The upper level course (Terrestrial Community Ecology) builds on the research skills obtained in General Ecology and emphasizes individual (or small group) projects with student-generated hypotheses and student-developed experimental designs.  All courses use Blackboard extensively, lectures are given in PowerPoint format and student discussion is encouraged.

Dr. McKenna is an enthusiastic advocate of teaching science by “doing science” in all her courses. She recently restructured the General Ecology course to incorporate open-ended original research projects carried out by student research teams.  Students are involved investigations in greenhouse, laboratory and outdoor settings, and they participate in field trips to natural areas (Roosevelt Island, Huntley Meadows Marsh) and areas of high ecological interest in the DC metro area (US Botanic Garden, National Zoo).  Student research projects include studies involving: (1) predator- prey interactions with oriental fire-bellied toads,  (2) parasite-host interactions with a (stingless!) parasitic wasp,  (3) water quality collected from local rivers, ponds and streams, (4) chemical interactions between plants, (5) habitat requirements of a common weed on HU campus, (6) invasion ecology of garlic mustard at Roosevelt Island, and  (7) leaf stomata as  bioindicators of environmental change. Each research team carries out online literature searches to support their research, discusses journal articles, and develops an annotated bibliography. Students learn research methods to collect data, basic statistical analysis (SYSTAT), and basic graphing techniques (EXCEL) to present their data.  Science communication skills are learned as each research team presents their data orally in the form of a PowerPoint show. Peer review of research has also been incorporated into the design of the course. 

Dr. A. Wade BoykinStudent response to the re-design of the course has been exceptional. Student evaluations rate the course very highly, and student enrollment has nearly doubled in 3 semesters. Prior to this redesign, student enrollment in the General Ecology course was about 22 per semester; enrollment in Spring 2005 is 40, and enrollment for the previous two semesters was 30 or more.  These enrollments have also been constrained by the size of available classroom; students have been turned away in each of the past 3 semesters.

Dr. Josepha Kurdziel from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the  University of Michigan is currently designing an educational research study to examine the effectiveness of this learning model as adapted in the General Ecology class by Dr. McKenna.  Dr. McKenna also plans to publish the predator–prey research project she developed for this course in the Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology  (TIEE) online journal sponsored by the Ecological Society of America. Student response to this learning model has convinced Dr. McKenna that active learning and peer- led activities that involve students in research is highly effective and very valuable in fostering student interest in research careers in science.  Exploration of new hypotheses is also fun and it allows students’ creative instincts to emerge!



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