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An Inquiry-Based Approach to Learning about Ecosystem Processes

Paper presented by R.P. Phillips and M.E. Krasny, M. E. at the 86th Annual Meetings of the Ecological Society of America, Madison, WI, 2001.

Inquiry-based research has been proposed as an effective method for teaching ecology to high school and undergraduate students because of its emphasis on ecological principles and the process of ecological research. Engaging students in field research can also serve to enhance ecology field trips. We developed a six-week inquiry-based ecology unit for high school students, which sought to 1) enhance student understanding of ecological processes, and 2) demonstrate how ecological research is a process of developing hypotheses, designing an experiment, interpreting results, and developing new hypotheses. We selected a study site in a local forest where non-indigenous earthworms have removed nearly all the leaf litter in select parts of the forest. After a brief introduction to earthworm ecology and nutrient cycling in forests, we asked students to develop a testable hypothesis to assess the ecological impacts of earthworm colonization. To help students with their experimental design, we introduced them to several field protocols. We then visited the forest twice to allow students an opportunity to practice and improve upon their sampling protocols. After collecting samples, students were given two weeks to complete their laboratory and data analyses. All students presented their results orally and as a manuscript. Results from student interviews suggests that most students developed an enhanced understanding of how nutrients are cycled in forests and how organisms influence nutrient availability. In addition, nearly all of the students developed an appreciation for the complexity and creativity involved in designing a successful ecological study.



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