Teaching ecology and evolution online

November 25, 2020

A special issue in Ecology and Evolution showcases teaching innovations during the COVID pandemic and features several articles penned by CBS faculty and students.

The rapid transition to virtual learning and teaching in early spring 2020 brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic upended education for educators, students and parents alike. Alongside many challenges came innovative approaches and new opportunities to center inclusive practices.

A special issue in Ecology and Evolution explores lessons learned, providing strategies and tools to teach online, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt in-person learning. Sehoya Cotner, associate professor in Biology Teaching and Learning, served as an associate editor and three articles include CBS researchers — including faculty and undergraduate contributors. 

“I’m proud to play a role in getting this special issue together. It provides easy-to-implement activities and plans for biology educators, especially in ecology and evolution, to deliver virtually. The presence of many early-career researchers, postdocs and student authors is also exciting to see,” says Cotner.

Three manuscripts include CBS authors, including: 

  • A paper highlighting stories from racially and ethnically diverse scientists in ecology and evolution that faculty can share with students. Showcasing role models that students relate to that share one or intersecting identities is an important aspect of inclusive teaching. To do this, educators must often look past the textbook. Two undergraduate students Samantha Brandt and Zoe Koth co-authored the paper with support from Cotner and Suzanne McGaugh, associate professor in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. 
  • Data-driven inquiry activities easily adaptable for online or mixed-modality courses. In the Foundations of Biology laboratory series students conduct lab or field research collaboratively, but the activities outlined in this paper leverage publicly available data sets instead. Seth Thompson, CBS Outreach Director was the lead author.
  • A manuscript showcasing how online tools can enhance field courses for students arose from unusual circumstances. In mid-March, Cotner found herself quarantining in a hotel in Chile alongside colleagues, predominantly early career researchers, and students, who were there for field courses. A travel ban instituted after arriving meant that they weren’t headed to the field, but instead quarantining together in a hotel. This manuscript, featuring course participants from over ten countries, is a product of that experience.

Despite the challenges of rapidly changing learning environments, from in-person to virtual, Cotner is optimistic that some of these changes will persist when it is safe to return to the classroom and lab. She doesn’t want educators to return to the “pre-COVID normal.”

“This rapid transition forced educators to realize that they can be more flexible, pre-record lectures and make content available in multiple modes. This is a key part of inclusive teaching, especially when it comes to supporting students with disabilities or non-traditional students,” says Cotner.

— Claire Wilson