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Informal, in-class writing assignments for HSCI 3XXX

Ecology and the Environment
Write-to-learn Prompts:

(1) This comes at the beginning of a lecture on the birth of ecosystems ecology. It is the last lecture in the second third of the course. Students have done readings…

What is an ecosystem? (This question goes with a Power Point slide showing many different levels of biological organization.) I ask students to write for a couple of minutes and then I have them pair and share for a couple of minutes before eliciting answers, which I write up on the board to refer to throughout the lecture.

(2) This question comes at the beginning of the first class of the third section of the course. I start this class playing the closing scene from Dr. Strangelove where the bombs are being dropped to “We’ll Meet Again.? While the scene is playing, I ask students to answer the question:

What factors may have contributed to the rapid expansion of ecosystems ecology after WWII? (This is sort of a set up to elicit the “obvious? response – environmental concerns. But the answer is much more complex, and this sets up the lecture on the factors that allowed ecosystems ecology to become a full-fledged “Big Science? in the 1950s and 1960s.)

Both of these writing assignments will help students in thinking through their final papers as well as, hopefully, giving them some personal investment in the lecture content.


For the first question, do you get into the Gleason/Clements controversy over whether an ecosystem is a motley collection of species that tend to co-occur, or whether it is in effect a "super organism", or at least something with emergent properties? A good follow-up question to focus critical attention on this issue might be something like: "Defend or refute: organs are to an organism as species are to an ecosystem."

By the time I pose this question, we have already gone over the Clements/Gleason debate and we are moving into the 1940s and Raymond Lindeman's "Trophic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology." I do like your analogy. I have never actually heard it put that way. The point of this question is to get students to recognize that an ecosystem is, as defined by Tansley, a mental isolate -- not a neatly defined, ultimate object. It also allows students to grapple with the ongoing battle betweens the holistic and individualistic views of plant and animal communities.