That’s a Wrap for SIPA’s 2021 Summer Ecology Courses

by Alexis Earl |September 28, 2021

Socially distanced learning in the classroom. Credit: Stephanie Hoyt

After over a year of primarily virtual learning, students in the Masters in Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) program finally came together in New York City for summer ecology courses. A large benefit of in-person instruction for ecology courses is outdoor labs and interactive field trips that allow students to gain hands on learning experiences and explore the environment around them while discussing what they observe with their classmates, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). During the summer of 2021 Principles of Ecology and Urban Ecology courses, students did just that. The experience was enhanced with talks given by Dr. Matthew Palmer, senior lecturer of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, as well as selected readings, group discussions, and report writing that allowed students to delve further into important environmental issues.

Principles of Ecology

To identify solutions to the major environmental problems that impact human society, it is critical to understand ecological processes and how they change across time, from the individual level scaling up to populations and ecosystems. In this course, students learned about interactions between organisms, as well as how organisms interact with their abiotic environment, considering spatial and temporal dynamics of those interactions. Building upon this information, students explored practical applications of ecological understanding at local and global scales.

Topics covered in the course spanned from ecosystem ecology, to the evolution of pesticide resistance, to the biology of (organismal responses to) climate change. Students gained experience investigating the community effects of introduced species, and learned critical skills like Life Table analysis, which summarizes population demographic statistics, and allows biologists to make predictions about the probability and timing of population growth or decline based on patterns of survival and reproduction.

In addition to time spent working in groups on lab reports, students devoted time at the beginning of each lab to group discussions. In these discussions, small groups of students each represented the position of a stakeholder in a selected environmental issue. Students integrated ecology knowledge learned in the lectures with information from background reading material provided before the discussions to collaboratively prepare an argument on behalf of their stakeholder position. Finally, the groups engaged in back-and-forth dialogue, presenting their group’s perspective and listening to the perspectives of others on the topic. Topics included: 1. the benefits and risks of transgenic crops, 2. challenges associated with urban food systems, 3. ecotourism as a means for mountain gorilla conservation in Africa, 4. wetland ecosystem restoration and mangrove conservation in Sri Lanka, and 5. introduced species management—particularly how to deal with the effect of feral cats on native wildlife in Hawaii. Stakeholders for different topics included groups like nonprofits, NGOs, small farmers, large scale agribusinesses, local business owners, wildlife conservation organizations, sustainability organizations, human rights advocates, local community members (both high income and low income perspectives), animal rights groups, pharmaceutical companies, and developers. Students carefully considered both the ecological and social dimensions of each problem, with the ultimate goal of coming to an understanding of the complexity of these issues and, ideally, a consensus on the best way forward to solve the problem. Students tackled the challenge of balancing many competing interests and practiced taking a nuanced approach to considering very different perspectives when addressing environmental issues.

Urban Ecology

After spending the first half of the summer developing a strong understanding of the biology of organisms and their interactions, and drawing on that understanding to discuss approaches to environmental problems, the Urban Ecology course allowed students to focus on how that knowledge can be applied to resource management in urban environments, like right here in NYC. Lectures, class discussion, and readings on applied ecology, conservation biology, and sustainable development provided students with the opportunity to consider how economic and social factors interact with policy to shape development decisions for urban environments.

For the students, a favorite part of the Urban Ecology course this summer was the field trip. The class visited the Fountain Avenue landfill restoration site (in Shirley Chisholm State Park) near Jamaica Bay to attend presentations by land managers from NYC Department of Environmental Protection and New York State Parks. Students then hiked a trail around the landfill restoration site. Students, along with Dr. Palmer, TAs, and liaisons, also explored Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and met with ecologists from the NYC Parks department and the NY state Department of Environmental Conservation to learn about several projects including wetland restoration, reforestation, and urban forest management. Students summarized what they learned on this trip by writing essays about urban ecosystem restoration in which they reference their observations to discuss potential solutions to challenges faced by urban land managers and restoration practitioners.

The grand finale for the Urban Ecology summer course was the student presentations of their final city projects. Groups of students presented an analysis of human-environment interactions within a city of their choice—i.e., how urban ecology influences the lives of human beings in cities, and how humans in turn alter their environment. From Mumbai to Reykjavik to Sao Paulo to San Francisco—students presented their examinations of how landscapes shape development, resource availability, interactions with wildlife, human health, and human behavior. In these presentations students demonstrated how much they had learned over the course of the summer and shared their depth of understanding with one another.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact the assistant director, Stephanie Hoyt (sah2239@columbia.edu) or attend one of our upcoming information sessions.

ESP Website: https://www.mpaenvironment.ei.columbia.edu/curriculum


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