Teaching population ecology and conservation biology with RAMAS software
The increasing awareness and social relevance of environmental problems have led to an increasing demand on conservation biology and environmental issues courses across the country. A common problem faced by every teacher of these courses faces is how to convey the basic ideas of ecology to non-quantitatively minded students. Population ecology poses a difficult pedagogical challenge, for it unavoidably contains mathematical expressions and abstract ideas that are hardly intuitive to most students. From a biologist perspective, the main goal in these courses is to develop basic understanding and intuition about ecological processes and interaction that are essential to conservation and natural resource management.
During the last few years, I have made extensive use the RAMAS teaching software at various levels with excellent results, even with students that are averse to mathematical equations. One reason for this success is that even non-mathematically minded students regularly use and have familiarity with computers. By implementing the basic demographic models in a computer, the programs of the RAMAS library engage students into actively learning about and freely experimenting with the components of these models without having to master their mathematical underpinnings. The use of real examples and field data of well-known endangered species (e.g. Northern Spotted Owl, Red-cockaded Woodpecker) readily available in RAMAS software, plays no small part in raising students interest and showing the actual relevance of the demographic models being discussed.
I have taught population ecology and conservation courses for undergraduates (sophomore or higher) at Stony Brook University and for graduate (Master) students at Bard College. In both cases, the use of software has proven to be key for the success of the courses. Essential concepts in conservation and resource management such as risk of population decline, chances of extinction or recovery and sustainable harvesting, are difficult to convey and illustrate without computer software. Another important component of these courses has been the written projects in which students use real data and the computer to address the questions and problems that typically arise in environmental sciences and demography. Examples of projects include determining sustainable harvesting levels, designing recovery strategies for endangered species, assessing the risk of extinction of impacted or endangered populations, designing strategies for control of human population growth, and others. In their projects, students are required to make intensive use of demographic models to evaluate different scenarios, and assess various natural conditions and management options, much in the same way as it is actually done by professional researchers in environmental sciences. These projects help illustrate with real cases the practical relevance and application of the ideas and models of population ecology to the students. I am delighted with the results I have thus far obtained with the use of the RAMAS software in teaching, and would highly recommend it to colleagues teaching courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
At the undergraduate level, the book "Applied Population Ecology with RAMAS Ecolab" provides about semester worth of lectures and exercises for computer labs. The instructor receives a set of overheads, answers to exercises and software site-license is free of charge if the book is adopted for teaching.
Bright high school students can understand the material covered in this book. Michael Teitelbaum of Smithtown High School, Smithtown, NY was named Westinghouse semi-finalist for his project on the piping plover on Long Island. The project assessed the risk of extinction of this federally endangered bird using RAMAS software.
At the graduate level, there are various programs depending on the teaching needs. RAMAS Metapop (or RAMAS GIS) is possibly the most powerful option. It includes the case of single population with age- or stage-structure, as well as the case of geographically distributed populations, which allows to address issues such as habitat fragmentation and reserve design.
You can find more information about the RAMAS software library in the web site, or by calling to 631-735-4350.
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Date modified: 3-2-05