Engaging undergraduate students in ecological investigations using large, public datasets


Teresa Mourad1,4, Bruce Grant2, and Wendy Gram3

1 - Education and Diversity Programs, Ecological Society of America, Washington, DC 20036

2 - Department of Biology, Widener University, Chester, PA 19013

3 - NEON Inc., Boulder, CO 80301

4 - Corresponding Author: Teresa Mourad (

Large-volume public datasets are now commonplace and high-quality data are available to investigate many ecological questions and issues of interest to scientists, policymakers, and citizens. Many people, however, do not have the experience or skills to search, use, analyze and interpret these data, nor are they usually in a form that is readily introduced into the classroom. In response, the Ecological Society of America (ESA), in close partnership with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), facilitated a Distributed Graduate Seminar sponsored by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis to focus on examining effective student activities and assessment strategies for using large public datasets in the classroom. This collection of teaching modules published in TIEE Volume 8 is the result of two years of collaborative effort from the seminar.

This seminar builds on a preliminary conceptual framework for Education Using Continental-scale Data generated at a 2008 ESA faculty workshop. The workshop was organized to make recommendations to NEON as they developed their education and outreach plan. The Conceptual Framework is now available both "At A Glance" and in an Interactive Format with definitions, examples and resources offered at ESA’s The Future of Environmental Decisions website.

Developed with current learning theory in mind, the modules emphasize student active-teaching methodologies that are inquiry-based and participatory. Key issues considered in developing the modules included:

  1. misconceptions and anxieties that students bring into the classroom related to data manipulation and interpretation;
  2. developmental stages in students’ mastery of critical concepts needed to work with large datasets, and;
  3. types of assessments that will authentically measure students' learning progress.

The teaching activities will provide undergraduate students the means to better understand important ecological concepts. They elaborate on a variety of approaches for students to gain experience in effectively applying quantitative skills to the analysis and interpretation of large-volume datasets. Responsive to the call for greater quantitative literacy in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, these modules provide models on how to build those fundamentally critical ecoinformatics skills in a data-savvy 21st century classroom.

We welcome you to join in ESA’s efforts to build a rich collection of teaching activities incorporating data investigations in ecology education. Please consider submitting your own ideas to TIEE or to EcoEd Digital Library.


Teresa Mourad, Bruce Grant, and Wendy Gram. February 2012, posting date. Engaging undergraduate students in ecological investigations using large, public datasetsTeaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 8: Commentary [online].