Students Walk and Talk Like Ecologists

Students Walk and Talk Like Ecologists

Instructors:  Cindy Wilber, Rodolfo Dirzo
Department: Biology; Earth Systems
Course: BIO/EARTHSYS 105: Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve
Audience: undergraduates, graduate students, and community members (23 students)
Format:  Typically a lecture (45 minutes to 2 hours) followed by field work to put knowledge into action
Schedule:  Thursdays 1:30-5:00 p.m. at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

Course Goals

The teaching team aims to provide broad, interdisciplinary understanding of the biological, physical, and historical aspects of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The main objective of the course is to get students hands-on experience doing what ecologists and natural historians do.

Because the course has its roots in docent training, it also prepares students to serve as preserve docents and, more broadly, develops them as science communicators and teachers.

Finally, Wilber and Dirzo want to create a  class community that's also part of greater Jasper Ridge community.


  • Bio 105 students count detritus at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.Two quarters is a must. Dirzo explains: "[For] the plan that we have for students to learn these two gigantic topics - the ecology and natural history of a place - one quarter would not be enough at all."

  • Scaffold the learning. The course is designed for students to build on lessons learned in a sequential fashion, from species identification and sampling techniques all the way up to theorizing interactions across different organisms in the preserve. Students conclude the course by presenting a capstone independent project that incorporates all of these elements.

  • Feed students at each class. The class is over four hours long, much of which is spent out in the field. It’s important for students’ learning and health to go into the field well-nourished. 
Also,“People who eat together form a community,” observes Wilber. Sharing food fosters an environment where first-year students form friendships with students in their seventies. And students do their own dishes, which helps them take responsibility and become part of the Jasper Ridge community.
  • Have students work in teams, and mix the teams up each time. Asked if students stay in the same groups throughout the six months, Wilber replies, “That would be too easy.”
Female Bio 105 student, smiling, out in the field with butterfly net. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.

  • Make data matter. The data collected during some labs is part of a long history of data collection at the preserve. For example, during one class, the students were able to compare their data to 22 years of student-collected data, and note changes in this year’s findings.

  • Turn students into instructors to fuel personnel sustainability in the course and in the community. The teaching team loves to get first-year students in the class because they know that these students can stay in the community for a number of years. The TAs are all prior students and have been carefully selected. Some students volunteer to run classes for local high school students, so there is a multiplicative effect to teaching and learning from this one class. 

  • Leverage the diversity of students. Wilber explains that the ideal class size is between 21 and 23 students, with about five of those being community members.  Students come from a variety of fields and offer a range of experience levels and perspectives, so team members often complement each other well. 

In-Class Strategies

This classroom is student-centered, so much so that she and Dirzo hope students can eventually develop the pedagogical skills to be each others' instructors. “My job is to set up the learning experience and get out of the way,” Wilber comments.  Signs around the room remind students and instructors alike, “TELLING IS NOT TEACHING.”

Dirzo says they both try to model good communication strategies for students. "We faculty try to be very rigorous in our presentations of the scientific issues, but we also try and make it evident that we want to be good communicators, because, for them being docents, communication is an essential aspect of the activities  they're going to be doing, right?"

Students are asked regularly to practice these communication skills. For example, an instructor might work closely with one team to demonstrate a particular skill. Then, that group will have to go to another group and explain in a very engaging, compelling way what they just learned. Those two groups then will go to the next group and so on, accumulating teaching practice.

Three Bio 105 students act out an insect's life cycle for the class. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.Above all, Dirzo and Wilber want to keep students active. In preparation for fieldwork, students usually hear a lecture on relevant background information for that day, and then enter into hands-on classroom activities. In one class, students formed pairs to do a live-action bug enactment to help them remember specific characteristics for identifying insects. Picture students frantically waving their arms to simulate extra legs and antennae. Props for wings and stingers, valiant efforts at making insect noises, and strong doses of humor were all part of this engaging activity.

Extensive fieldwork is also key to keeping students active.  “When you hand somebody a net, they instantly become a hunter,” explains Wilber. That transformation was evident as students ran through high grass seeing how many grasshoppers, butterflies, and other insects they could collect. 

Bio 105 students in the field taking measurements. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.On another day, students prepared to measure forest diversity  in an area with a lot of poison oak. Before heading out, they suited up in white tyvek suits and blue latex gloves. "To walk and talk like ecologists," explains TA Michael Peñuelas, “we dress like them too!”

Of course, fieldwork requires quite a bit of flexibility. "Animals and the weather don't really behave as you always want for them to behave, right?" says Dirzo. Sometimes the instructors have to improvise when environmental factors mean that a plant or particular animal simply isn't as abundant as expected for observation.

On the other hand, sometimes unexpected field results can be quite positive. On a day meant for studying arthropods (animals with no bones), the class came across a rattlesnake. It was a wonderful opportunity to see and learn about a species that didn't quite fit into the day's lesson but was exciting and worthwhile to study.

Out-of-Class Strategies

Students prepare for each class by reading a selected list of references that provide a baseline of background information.  This assures that students cover a lot of material outside of class so that the instructors can keep lectures as short as possible. Explains Dirzo, "Imagine one session in which I have to do the ecology and evolution of plant defenses against the attack of animals. So, you know, there's ecology, evolution, chemistry, botany, zoology, all of that. Having them read and address some problems before coming to class is really, really critical."

Closeup of a caterpillar on a leaf, held out to the camera by a Bio 105 student at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.Dirzo and Wilber encourage community involvement so that their students become ambassadors of learning. "The students who participate in this class almost naturally develop an interest in outreach activities. And I think that is, in part, explained by the fact that we deliberately try to make sure that the students have an ability to communicate, because that's what they will have to do " says Dirzo. In one program in Redwood City, students help run a program established by Dirzo and Wilber some years ago to develop an appreciation of science in high school students there. 

At the end of the first quarter, students must write a protocol as to how they would give a tour to somebody who might come to the preserve and want to learn what's going on there. In what amounts to about a twenty-page paper, they describe in detail what they would notice and explain to visitors as they walk along the trail. 

At the end of the second quarter, students present an independent project about a topic of interest to them and to the preserve. This not only lets them express their motivations, passions, and interests, it also helps them contribute to the knowledge of the preserve and try to tackle some of its ongoing problems. When students present their work, audience members include  former students and members from the community who come to see what the students have done this year.

Lessons Learned

Bio 105 student, wearing protective gear, recording measurements in the field on a clipboard. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL."One of the lessons that I have learned is that being out in the field makes a great difference for the students, and it also makes a great difference for the faculty," Dirzo reflects. Reading papers and seeing PowerPoint presentations are useful for student learning but, Dirzo argues, "students get really, really excited when they are exposed to the issues and complexities in the field."

"The other fantastic lesson that I have learned here is that by having different specialists on different areas of the ecology and natural history of the place, we learn a lot ourselves from the other faculty, and from the interaction with students," adds Dirzo.

Plans for Next Iteration of the Course:  

  • The teaching team hopes to fine-tune the time management of the course, especially the balance of time spent in lecture, gathering data, and analyzing the data. 

  • Dirzo and Wilber are also still working on developing the best way to sequence lessons such that each lesson logically follows those before it and at the same time allows for flexibility. Because the teaching team welcomes the participation of outside specialists, sometimes they find they must bend the course around the specialists' availability, which means the sequence of lessons might not always flow in the way they'd like. In the future, they hope to find ways to make the course more nimble. 

About the Teaching Team:

Headshot, Prof. Rodolfo Dirzo outdoors. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.Roldofo Dirzo, Bing Professor in Environmental Science, teaches ecology courses and leads the Dirzo Lab in the Department of Biology. His research on conservation biology looks at plant and animal interactions, evolutionary ecology, and herbivore defense.



Cindy Wilber, co-instructor of Bio 105, in the lab, speaking. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.Cindy Wilber is the Education Coordinator at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. She's worked at the Preserve for over twenty years. She also runs several outreach programs with local schools.


See Also:


Headshot, Anna Castillo, profile author. Photo courtesy of Anna Castillo.Anna Castillo is a PhD candidate in Latin American Literatures and Cultures.