Ecology has been a long time favorite subject of mine. I’ve always liked how it got me outside and how simple it could be to study. A great deal can be done without spending a ton of money or having to acquire fancy equipment. It was also very rewarding–I always got to see something interesting any time I went out for a field study.
My tension is with teaching it in urban settings–and I have two problems that I hope to tackle.
- How do I teach the way I want to, when there are limited outdoor areas to take students to?
- How do I teach the way I want to, when there are limits on field studies taken and many steps to getting these studies approved by administration?
I have found these particular problems to be the most present in Rochester. In rural areas, one can often just use the area around the school. Here, local parks that could be walked to in this area are little more than a lawn with some planted flowers. Any place that could have a decent yield for study would require taking time from other classes and need more administrative approval. It would be extremely hard to do any sort of study that requires multiple trips or trials, somewhat depriving the students of an authentic scientific experience.
After doing some research, here’s what I found:
There are urban ecology studies to share with students, though not as many as with wildlife ecology. Urban ecology just doesn’t seem to be as popular a study target for scientists, though it is rising. I’ve seen studies of urban nesting of night hawks, how bird song changes due to noise pollution, community studies of local rodents, etc. The problem is that they’re not as easy to modify and replicate with students, especially with large class sizes. Many of the studies I’ve seen would require cameras, city permission, or trips to multiple parks, which may not get school approval.
What does seem to be more promising, however, are insect studies. These studies seem to need very few resources: internet and sticky traps. And since traveling range of insects can be very short, one does not have to worry as much about migration or large territories. Spiders appear to be the easiest to study because they tend to stay wherever they build their webs.
Michael W. Fall, an entomologist from Penn State, realized the difficulties of teaching ecology to urban students way back in the ’60s. He recognized that urban ecology is often ignored, and thus there is also the problem that many biology teachers don’t know how to teach it anyway. He provides some suggestions of where to look: such as vacant lots, trash cans, and rooftops; and also what to study: movement of birds, catch and release cockroaches, etc.
He proposes a number of interesting studies, which I found to be very helpful in framing my thinking. Though some would not be acceptable now due to health and safety, there are still ideas that could be done with students today. The papers he wrote are not available for free so I cannot link to them. However, if you are a university student, feel free to look them up on the library search engine. The citations can be found below. Also check out Joseph Fail’s paper which shows how one can do a comparative study of ecology by exploring different “habitats” around the urban jungle to regular forests.
Fall, M. W. (1969). Teaching ecology in the urban environment. The American Biology Teacher, 31(9), 572-574. 10.2307/4442831
Fail, J. (1995). Teaching ecology in urban environments. The American Biology Teacher, 57(8), 522-525. 10.2307/4450047