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The Power of Story

"The power of story" refers to using non-fictional accounts of science conveyed as "story" to engage students' emotion and imagination. Research in cognition shows that, "Storytelling is not something we just happen to do. It is something we virtually have to do if we want to remember anything at all." [10] Whether in a textbook or in a lecture course, a few stories that are presented in detail, tying together ecological concepts and framed clearly as examples that illustrate common themes, would be more effective then short examples for each concept. Such stories can better demonstrate the increasingly sophisticated understanding that we have about ecology, for example, as outlined by Odum [11] and Sinclair [12], but seldom apparent to students using the current ecology textbooks. Furthermore, such stories may inspire students to seek a career in ecology and with a better understanding of the contributions needed. Such stories can be developed from the wealth of research that has been conducted on particular systems. Below are some examples. Each example has a brief synopsis of the story, which is centered on plant-herbivore interactions and with an emphasis on long-term, complex ecosystem-level consequences. None of the stories are meant to be complete (i.e., include all that is known about the system or acknowledge the many people who contributed to the current understanding), and only some references can be provided.

Example of how to implement

Objective: The objective is to go well beyond the simplistic presentation in textbooks of ecosystems and food webs. College students are fully capable of reading the textbook. Reviewing that or presenting more examples in lecture does not move them toward the sophisticated level of understanding that we ecologists have. Telling them about the complexity is not sufficient. Students have to grapple with it mentally, and this can be accomplished in classrooms by having students themselves convert the facts to conceptual relationships. An integral part of this is students articulating their thoughts to others. Once the students have been through one example of this, they understand how to attack another example, and so it proceeds more rapidly.

Conceptual approach: The "lecture hour" structure is based on the 5-E learning/teaching cycle [1]. 5E refers to five phases: engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. "Cycle" refers to the need to revisit or reinforce concepts (and re-challenge preconceptions and misconceptions). This powerful method is particularly useful for identifying, challenging and replacing misconceptions. Although it is usually applied to inquiry-based and hands-on activities, it is just as useful and appropriate for minds-on activities and, thus, for large enrollment college courses. The primary minds-on activities used here are concept maps and pair-and-share. The value of these has been well demonstrated, and various suggestions for implementing them are described elsewhere [2, 3, 4].

Mechanics of course relative to this kind of exercise: How much time it takes for this exercise depends on the size of the class, the background of students, reading assignments in support of the exercise, how much of the work of the exercise is done outside of the classroom, and interests of students (or time spent on discussions and/or tangents).

We assign readings for three purposes: 1) as review (usually from a textbook) to make sure everyone (in theory) starts at the same place (e.g., this exercise is used in a sophomore course and since as freshmen they had introductory biology with a good foundation of evolution, the topic of "natural selection" is considered review, meaning they are responsible for the material in the textbook but we don't lecture about it per se), 2) ecological conceptual development (i.e., students are to read (usually specific sections from a textbook) about concepts for understanding, and so most of this reading is assigned at the Explain phase), and 3) "engaging" articles that show how ecologists think, what they do to answer questions, how our understanding of the biosphere has developed, what we don't know but need to find out, etc.

We have students do as much of the work of the exercise outside of class as possible. On-line course management software (e.g., Blackboard) greatly facilitates that. We aim for 2.5 hours of focused out-of-class work and reading per credit hour per week. We emphasize a steady "diet" of work and reading to reinforce the mini-lecture-discussion format of the lecture period rather than memorization (and cramming) before the evaluation phase. We reward class attendance and participation. We do not grade on a curve; we grade for mastery of material and competence in application. In theory, everyone can get an "A". We set a high standard, and either have a "practice evaluation" (exam) early in the course, or allow students to drop the lowest evaluation/exam grade.

Setting the stage: Begin by setting the stage for this type of exercise. For instance, we tell the students at the outset of our ecology course that the goal of the course is to determine what it takes to put together and/or sustain a healthy, functional ecosystem. If we can understand that, then we can ask what it takes to put together and/or sustain a healthy, functional set of ecosystems, or a biosphere. And we keep reminding the students about this goal throughout the course.

Examples of how to implement the power of story:

Eastern deciduous forest: Lyme disease, masting, and gypsy moths
Eastern deciduous forest: Mutualisms and nutrient cycling
Outlines for Eastern deciduous forest material
References for Power of Story examples
Sample concept maps


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Last Updated: 1/28/15