Dag Hessen: Advancing the Teaching of Ecology

Dag Hessen (second from right) believes that the teaching of ecology needs to move forward, better integrating our impact on the planet (Image Credit: paal @flickr, Image cropped, CC BY 2.0)

Teaching ecology has taken up a large chunk of my year. I love doing it, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing students becoming engaged in new concepts. But the way we teach ecology can often be quite static, with too little emphasis on how our ecosystems are changing, and how we can communicate this to a world thoroughly in need of more scientific understanding.

One person working to change how we teach ecology is Dag Hessen. I spoke to Dag earlier this year about communicating science to children through literature, which you can read more on here. But during the discussion we got sidetracked and went in-depth on how the teaching of ecology needs to change.

Sam Perrin (SP): You’ve previously talked about ecologists needing to change our teaching of ecology. Can you take me through this?

Professor Dag Hessen, Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo (DH): I would say by and large, at least the way we teach and disseminate ecology is pretty old-fashioned. One thing we should be doing better is to show how ecology and evolution are two sides of the same coin. We teach these as separate courses, the students don’t really see how interwoven these things are.

But even more important is that we should put more into ecology in terms of the changes that are occurring in the Anthropocene. Pretty much everything that has to do with ecosystem changes is based on ecological insights. But the ecological textbooks that we use really fail to present this in perspective. The textbook we use presents the classical things in ecology, starting with cells and genes, then species and communities and food-webs before ending with ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles and such. And it goes on to talk about how species and carbon cycling might be affected by climate change, but more as an add-on than really incorporated in the text – where relevant. Also the current trends with reduced biodiversity is not really addressed. So these literally burning issues need to be more implemented in our teaching of ecology. The WorldWatch institute’s 2017 report was completely dedicated to How to Teach Ecology in a way that makes it more relevant in terms of global change matters, themes like climate, species loss and declining populations.

SP: So do you think global change ecology will really come to the forefront of the discipline?

DH: I think it should. It doesn’t mean that we should kick out these basic concepts of species and communities. That needs to be there, but we need to better show how this knowledge is important in terms of global impacts, and not just climate change. Overfishing the top of the food web, removing top predators, changing the base of the food web, all these things that have to do with human impacts need to be better implemented and explained. And also I think it provides strong motivation for students to go further in ecology. Of course we want to teach and learn ecology, because it tells us about the basic issues of nature, how things fit together, but also because it’s instrumental to understand the risks and potential impacts of anthropogenic effects. And of course how we can put remedies in place.

SP: A lot of teaching has traditionally moved students into academia. Do we need to change that?

DH: Yes, we have continuous discussions about that. We are stuck to some extent with the tradition of training students for academia. And in fact just a minority are ending up in an academic institute. But we’re starting to see very interesting trends. We started courses years ago in science dissemination, not only to write chronicles and popular science, but focussing on the general dissemination of science, and actively communicating research. And we’re starting to see students realise that they can go into a number of fields and use these skills elsewhere. So the attitudes among students are changing but the teaching is still lagging behind.

We’re also seeing biologists go into completely different careers. The securance industry, consulting businesses, the private sector. And also a fair number of students are going into media, to really be professional disseminators of science, which I think is excellent.

We need for emphasis on public interaction and policy-making too. Because it’s important for researchers to actively communicate and participate in the big public debates at all levels. I mean that’s something that we’re much too reluctant to do. Our thing is to publish our papers and that’s it. Too few people interact. It illustrates the lack of connection between policy making and science. It must be caused by a lack of communication.

SP: I heard a speech by marine biologist Nancy Knowlton a few years ago regarding environmental optimism. She talked about the constant pessimism regarding global change ecology. How would you inspire optimism in students nowadays?

DH: That’s even more important. The younger the students are, the more important it is not to serve this message in the vein of a ‘world on a the brink of collapse’ metaphor. It’s a poor metaphor, and it’s not sound science. The world doesn’t collapse, there are no strict boundaries where you just fall off the edge of a cliff. So I think it’s important to draw a distinction between climate issues becoming serious and humans going extinct or the planet turning into Mars. That’s very very unlikely.

The optimism I tend to provide is that yes, things will become worse, there’s no doubt about that. We shouldn’t become so optimistic as to say “sure there are problems but we’ll fix this so just relax”. Things will become serious, there will be problems. Part of the globe might become uninhabitable, but it doesn’t mean global collapse. Ecosystems are robust, the globe has been through tremendous changes in climate before humans entered the scene, and it has recovered. But of course this hasn’t been without cost. The big Paleocene-Eocene thermomaximum 55 million years ago wiped out 95% of marine species. And life has recovered, but it’s not the same life.

So it’s about balancing pessimism. I would call it realism. But these apocalyptic visions are very important to avoid.

The polar bear has become a symbol of climate change. But can we hinge our expectations for the health of an ecosystem on one species?

The polar bear has become a symbol of climate change. But can we hinge our expectations for the health of an ecosystem on one species? (Image Credit: NPS Climate Change Response)

SP: Carsten Rahbek of the University of Copenhagen was talking about the polar bear, and how we use this as a visual tool for inspiring concern for the Arctic, when polar bears are quite unlikely to go extinct. Do you think we need to start moving away from this?

DH: I don’t know if that’s possible. The nice things about polar bears is that they are big and charismatic and people care about them. In many ways it’s of course a false symbol. They will probably not go extinct, but if ice shrinks in the Arctic, they will by definition have a hard time. But from a large perspective it doesn’t really matter to the globe if the polar bear goes extinct. It’s more the small players, the phytoplankton, the microbes, the processes that they’re involved in that are critical.

Again, it’s an argument for teaching basic ecology and knowing biochemical cycles and knowing what goes on at the base of the food web. That’s where the important things happen, in every tiny chloroplast and mitochondria, the balance between photosynthesis and respiration. It’s a risk if we put everything on the polar bear and it turns out that after all they do fine. You can’t link the whole argument of global change and Arctic ecosystem health to a single species.

SP: There was a heavily cited study that came out recently talking about insect declines. It has been the subject of a lot of controversy, but it at least drew attention to the plight of insects. Is it a good sign that we’re starting to pay attention to smaller species?

DH: Yes, absolutely. Insects are not just annoying bugs. Of course when the decline of bees started to become evident, people realised what bees were actually doing. It was a very nice illustration of an ecosystem services that has been by and large ignored. Pollination is immensely important. People might not care that much if a bunch of small invisible insects disappear, but of course they care about nice butterflies and bumblebees. And now they care about pollinators too. But there’s still a lot of grey beetles that are hidden to the public that are still enormously important. These trends we’re seeing in declines of bird populations are linked to insects. They influence all sorts of trophic cascades. Darwin had a fantastic example.

He was asked why there are always better harvesting of red clover in England closer to villages, and found out that since people in the villages had cats, cats acted on the populations of voles and mouse. Less mice and voles meant more bumblebees, because the mice tended to plunder the bumblebee nest. And more bumblebees meant better clover harvests. It’s a nice example of the effects these insects have on society.

And these studies are important. The Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhus paper, it might be that negative cases have been cherry-picked, giving too pessimistic a view, but by and large, there is no doubt that insects are declining. This fits well with reports we’ve seen about declining populations with vertebrates too. Which is pretty logical given human footprint on the planet, the huge monocultures of species we’ve created, our use of pesticides etc.. So I think that it’s a good thing that people are more engaged with this issue now.

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