Ecology in a box

Photo of a leaf pack box with contents displayed including
Leaf pack. Source:

by Lynn Carpenter, lecturer and advisor for the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

As with most other faculty last year, I was completely at a loss of how to take my Ecology Lab normally “In-Person” class to online. During a regular term, we go to the botanical gardens for our labs and the students love it.  They get a chance to walk through nature, to appreciate wildlife and to see things in person. Now I had to find a way to design a bunch of labs online that students can do at home. I also had to do this very much ahead of time so I could send them kits with the non-toxic supplies they would need. Truthfully, this is not normally my style.  I’m a sort of a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of gal. 

Fortunately, the department hired some help for me (thank you-you know who you are), and we started to get very creative very fast. We designed an Urban bird lab, a population growth lab involving a sourdough starter, a tree identification lab, and every other lab we could think of that would involve NON-toxic chemicals yet that would be scientifically, and somewhat ecologically valid. I was even able to get a famous speaker to Zoom a lecture to my class on the environmental movement and Super Funds (thank you Lois Gibbs). By the time the class began, I was anxious but as ready as we could be.

After two fun afternoons of delivering kits to students who had decided to change where they would be living in Fall, and I ended up owing my husband two dinners and one lunch as he drove me around and I looked for addresses. As I knocked on the door, I hoped that the students would collect their kits before someone else became interested. If they kit did disappear, whoever the perpetrator would be would have been sorely disappointed with a few petri plates, flour, and tree identification booklets.

After a lot of stressing, some blood, sweat and tears (literally), the semester went about as well as we could have hoped for. Some labs worked wonderfully, while others were less than perfect. If you keep things in perspective, this is often what happens during the year when we stand in front of the students and guide them. Most labs in person work well, but a few invariably will tank for some students. 

In addition to learning to be creative and think outside of the box (but inside of the kit), I also started to accept the value of recorded lectures. I am always nervous about recording the lectures because I am afraid the students won’t come to class. Research has shown that being in the classroom during lecture greatly improves student performance. Well, this was not happening for any of us last year, so I had to make the most of it. Some students could attend a live class, while others said they could not. To compensate for this, I started recording and putting the lectures up on Youtube. This was surprisingly well received by the students.

So what do I take away from this, and what can I apply to this term? First of all, I did learn that recording lectures can make my class more accessible to students who don’t always have a safe way to get to class. Now my ultimate goal now is to find a platform (NOT ZOOM) that will let me give lecture in person, and simultaneously be online with some students who can’t travel. This way students who don’t have easy access to class can still attend. Secondly, I learned not to snub the value of outside speakers. By far, Lois Gibbs was the favorite lecture of the students (and mine actually).  Now if only she was a little cheaper. And finally, I learned that no matter how much I grumble at getting up early and going to work to teaching, I will NEVER take for granted the thrill I get from teaching my students in person. I miss seeing them light up when they understand something they did not before. I miss seeing them engaged while we go over materials together, and most of all I miss my students … a lot … so much for retiring and teaching remotely. Oh well, now I know.