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Tweeting for conservation and biodiversity

A year ago I would have told you that Twitter was for folks with time to waste. My perception of the social media platform was that it was useful if you felt the need to share what you had for breakfast with the world. Or perhaps to share pictures of your pets while wittily anthropomorphizing in 140-characters or less. And the fact that the most-followed tweeter in the world was Justin Bieber didn’t exactly sell me on using it for science communication and outreach. And besides, one-hundred forty characters sure seemed arbitrary. And all the hashtags….#ugh.

Perspectives change though. With a nudge from my brother and a couple of colleagues, I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only have I enjoyed connecting with people that I would have previously only seen at conferences once a year, but it has led me to papers, articles, and blog posts that I would have certainly otherwise missed. Yes, twitter has been an enriching experience. And I have yet to learn about anyone’s breakfast.

Admittedly, at first I found Twitter a bit overwhelming; in fact, in some ways I still do. However, after using it for about six months I began thinking about how it might augment a course, as a potential way to stimulate discussion outside of class. I cheerfully imagined a group of engaged and passionate students busily tweeting information, ideas, and links to each other. However, I also imagined various scenarios where a classroom Twitter experiment would end in disaster.  I read quite a few articles on the use of Twitter in college-level courses, both inside and outside the classroom (e.g., here, here), but precisely how well this would work in the context of my introductory environmental science course was unclear.  The first day of class did little to ease my mind, as when I told the students that we were going to use Twitter their expressions ranged from disbelief to horror. However, it was not a disaster. In fact, the students took to it much more than I had anticipated.  As the semester comes to a close, I am absolutely convinced that it enhanced the learning experience.

The course structure

Conservation and Biodiversity (EES-28) is an introductory conservation biology course aimed at non-majors and potential majors (see here for example syllabus from 2011).  The course consists of lectures, activities, case studies, and discussions.  Instead of a traditional textbook, the students read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, a 1997 book that provides them with knowledge of the scientific process, a personal view on what natural scientists do, background in some fundamental ecology, and a historical perspective on the development of some important scientific ideas. The lectures then provide up-to-date summaries of conservation biology and basic ecology.  In addition, the students listen to several conservation-related podcasts culled from various news sources (mostly NPR) each week, highlighting the relevance of the course material to current events. They keep a journal of their thoughts on the podcasts and book, as well as any other thoughts related to the topic of the course. My primary objective with Twitter was for the students to share notes, links, and thoughts related to the readings and the podcasts. However, there were also a number of unanticipated benefits. I detail below what I see as the major ways that Twitter benefited the course (in reverse order of significance).

Benefit #6: Class updates and communication

Twitter was a much easier and more efficient tool than email to communicate with the class about assignments, due dates, and other logistical issues.  When students asked me questions through twitter, their questions and my answers would be seen by the entire class. Since I generally had to only  answer questions once, this decreased my course-related email volume tremendously by eliminating redundancy.

Benefit #5: I learned a lot!

The students collectively shared links to course-related information that they stumbled upon. Many of these enhanced my own education! And some were just plain fun…

Benefit #4: Sharing summaries of in-class, small-group discussions with other groups.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Throughout the course we devoted some classes to the discussion of Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, and given that there were over 40 students we broke into smaller groups for these book discussions.  I sincerely believe that face-to-face conversations are an important part of the educational experience, but twitter served as a useful way for the small groups to share some of their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Benefit #3: Students shared information on campus events outside of class.

Students shared thoughts, pictures, and announcements of things that were happening locally and regionally.  These included simple ecological observations on campus (e.g., here), announcements of regional events and happenings (e.g., here), and events in their lives that were related to the course topics (e.g.,here, here). In particular, I was pleasantly surprised when students started live-tweeting a public talk by Bill McKibben! The students’ tweets about personal and campus events contributed to a fun class atmosphere and promoted a sense of community engagement.  Here are some tweets from students about the McKibben lecture:

Benefit #2: Note sharing and studying

The students shared notes on the podcasts and readings with each other, and used the course twitter feed to study for exams. When possible, I also incorporated the student’s tweets into lectures, which helped to keep students engaged. All course tweets used the hashtag #ees028, so that students could examine the entire twitter feed by searching this tag.  Several students remarked on this benefit in their journals.

“I absolutely loved the use of twitter for this course. It was great to be able to read my classmates’ thoughts about the podcasts and compare their tweets to mine. There was always a little feeling of satisfaction and pride when I saw my personal tweets during class lectures.”

“I think the most beneficial part of this class (outside of lecture) was the twitter feed. It kept me engaged and curious the entire semester. It was also extremely helpful to scroll through the twitter feed during exam time because it helped to jog my memory about what each podcast was about.”

“Twitter  allowed me to become more engaged in what was being taught in lecture or heard in the podcasts, and encouraged me to do my own research on the latest news.”  “I thought it was a fun way to educate the rest of the class by tweeting information, videos and news articles.”

“The idea of tweeting about podcasts and various other readings is something I think most teachers should implement. Not only is it a great way to “note-take,” but being able to read tweets from our peers and communicate with the instructor as well as some of the more famous ecologists on twitter was something I found extremely cool!”

“I had never used Twitter in a class before, but I think that it is a really good idea.” “Not only could we follow people in the class to see their thoughts on the material, we could also follow the people that we were hearing speak in our podcasts… which was really cool. Twitter has been a great resource through out the class and especially to review for tests.”

Benefit #1: The students were able to directly engage people outside of the class

On several occasions, the students were able to directly open up a dialogue with the scientists and authors featured in the podcasts, readings, and lectures.  A nice example is an exchange that they had with Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist that studies the causes and consequences of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions (see here for the correspondence that she had with the class). However, the students were really excited when they realized that they could directly ask David Quammen questions about Song of the Dodo. In fact, the first student to do this was so excited that she captured an image of her phone!

Here are few more selections:

A less tangible benefit? Engaging and educating the world.

During the duration of the course, a total of over 4,500 tweets on topics related to the biodiversity crisis and the science of conservation were sent out to the twitter-sphere. Maybe through the twitter-sphere we made a few more people aware of the profound impact that humans are having on the biosphere. Maybe if other environmental science courses started using twitter we could reach more. And think of the impact we might have if we started tagging Justin Bieber in our science-related tweets.

-rkb- (@StatelyTrees)

Sequoias: Scaling a Forest Giant (link)

Fun article on “The President” by David Quammen.

Sequoias: Scaling a Forest Giant – National Geographic Magazine.

Final thoughts on “Song of the Dodo” (student guest posts)

“Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen.

I first read “Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen when I was beginning my graduate career.  I had just started working toward my MS degree, and the book influenced my decision to pursue a PhD.  Although the science of conservation has moved on from some of the ideas discussed in the book, it still provides a nice summary of the biodiversity crisis, the history and development of some major ecological and evolutionary ideas, a window into the diversity of scientific methods and approaches,  and perhaps most importantly – manages to convey the excitement of ecology and infect the reader with the passion of the scientists involved.  In five years of using the book in my non-majors course on conservation and biodiversity, the student responses have been overwhelmingly positive.  Certainly there are a few students that dislike it, particularly because it is long and requires a big time investment, but most students find it interesting and each year a few students always find it tremendously inspiring.  In fact, every year I have at least a few students that rank it among the best books they have ever read.  Below are some selected thoughts of students after reading the book.


An exhaustive journalistic work

Quammen’s book struck the right note of hope in its final pages and did a service to readers by pointing them to research directed at answering the all-important “What can be done” question. As a journalist, Quammen is right to acknowledge that his job can only ever be descriptive, “diagnostic” as he calls it, and not prescriptive. The tough job of devising solutions to human-caused habitat degradation/fragmentation and extinction is best left to the field ecologists, researchers and modelers of the world, many of whom Quammen introduces us to in Dodo. It is comforting to know that such a colorful, impressive cast of characters is hard at work on behalf of the world’s endangered species and ecosystems, even if the particulars of their work remain a little fuzzy to non-scientists. The exhaustive journalistic work Quammen does in Dodo is valuable precisely because it brings the science into somewhat sharper focus for lay readers, who have a hand, to a greater or lesser extent, in informing the public policy and civil society decisions that affect biodiversity. This is, of course, the same reason it is valuable to offer a course like Biodiversity and Conservation to non-majors like me: to encourage intellectual curiosity and foster a concern for threatened biodiversity in those who are not immediate stakeholders. As someone who hopes to work in a university setting one day, albeit in a decidedly non-scientific field, I found it meaningful to see how science is practiced at the university level by taking this course at this late point in my academic career.



Looking past ourselves

The final section of David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo” has a very simple point: each and every species is going to go extinct. There is an inherent dynamism in the natural world that cannot be reversed. Humans, for better or for worse, are a part of something much greater than we personally can conceive. The implications of imagining our inevitable mortality are hard to swallow; the implications of imagining our way of life, our societies, our entire species going extinct are essentially impossible.

Our comparable intelligence allows us to know far more than we can readily perceive with our immediate senses. With this, we claim to know how ecosystems work and how species fit together. We grant ourselves the ability to control the environment in both positive and negative ways. We destroy species, so naturally we can save them. We envision that cloning will one day bring the thylacine back from extinction. We play God in an effort to avoid the realization that we one day will also fall.

This is not to excuse the immediacy of anthropogenic harm to the natural world. The Gaia hypothesis envisions the world as ever existing, before, during, and after human effects. The world functions as a whole, with humans as a major, but not sole part. Even if the world persists long after our inevitable decline, in the immediate realm – the realm that we as humans can actually conceive – we must act to minimize our impact. Granting rights and value to species for non-utilitarian purpose may be politically impossible, but morally it is necessary.

I doubt that we will see a major value shift any time soon. It will take major anthropocentric catastrophe to cause humans to change their motivations and stop consuming at such a rampant level. Conservation programs offer a glimpse into a world where nature, and the non-human, can be valued for something other than our own needs. We want to “Save the Whales” not solely for our own enjoyment and tourism, but because the whales deserve to be saved. In the short term, we appeal to human health and needs, but in the long term we must look past ourselves.



An adult female northern muriqui (woolly spider monkey). (Photo: wikipedia, Paulo B. Chaves)

Trading a brotherly hug

I did it. I finished the entire book. I read all 628 pages and it didn’t disappoint. I really liked The Song of the Dodo.  I was continuously surprised at how brave David Quammen was for a journalist/writer. I certainly would not be brave enough to climb a vine in order to get a story, but his passion/dedication was evident throughout the book. One of my favorite sections was when he went to Montes Claros to study the muriquis and got the chance to see firsthand and speak with scientists that were studying their reproductive habits. I was surprised to find that the female muriquis are dominant, and that there was little reproductive competition among the males. I had imagined the image that Quammen describes: males butting heads, growling. The image of the males instead “trading a brotherly hug” is much nicer! I definitely wouldn’t have wanted Strier’s job of collecting muriqui feces, however the dedication she had for this important form of data collection just reaffirms her passion – something evident in all of the scientists profiled in this book.

So what?” begins the last chapter: a very simple question, but one that carries extreme weight. As we lose a large portion of the planet’s biological diversity, individual species are not all we are losing; we simultaneously lose “a large portion of our world’s beauty, complexity, intellectual interest, spiritual depth, and ecological health.” This section also examined the major effect that humans have played in extinctions and raised the strange concept that one day Homo sapiens might go extinct. It is a weird idea to think about. As Quammen mentions, extinction is natural, so why do we think that we are immune to it? It puts things in perspective for me.



A Mauritius kestral. (Photo: wikipedia)

Acquiring the evidence along with Quammen

With this final blog post comes a final reflection on David Quammen’s very lengthy book on island biogeography entitled, “The Song of the Dodo.” The last two sections of the novel focused on Quammen’s personal voyage through the islands of Aru, the reestablishment of the kestrels and the muriquis, and finally, how we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction largely initiated by human influence.

What I really liked about the conservation efforts regarding the kestrels and the muriquis was that Quammen compared and contrasted active human involvement (kestrels) with passive, observatory human involvement (marquis) and the ensuing success in re-establishing viable populations. Quammen details a descriptive narrative of how the scientist’s involved in the campaign to revitalize the Mauritius Kestrel population went to great lengths to save this dwindling species. These scientists scaled mountains in order to “swipe” the kestrel clutches in order to propel the mother kestrel to produce more eggs to compensate for the missing ones.  These extravagant efforts to save a dwindling species are contrasted with the case of  the South American muriquis. The scientist involved in this effort holds the notion that humans should merely observe and facilitate the breeding and prosperity of these primates instead of becoming actively involved.

I was surprised by how much I really liked this book. It broke up the definitions, equations, and statistics with a humorous narrative and personal anecdotes. Quammen writes in such a way that you feel like you are learning about the development of these theories and acquiring the evidence along with him. The book ends with tones of both desperation and optimism, and the urgency of a call to action to salvage what little of our natural environment that we have left.



Exclamation points

Honestly, the more I read this book, the more I want to be an ecologist.  I came into the major not really knowing what job opportunities I would be able to pursue, but this book is certainly giving me some good ideas.

I’m also considering taking more English classes so I can more effectively “fight out [my] battles in the journal literature.” I’m not terrible at writing, but being able to compare my speech to others here at Lehigh has shown me that I really could use some improving.  I thought it was funny how the scientists went back and forth in journals debating each other about the details of nature-reserve design (i.e., the SLOSS debate). Quammen pointed out that they even used exclamation points, which are apparently uncommon in scientific journals. Clearly the experiment itself is important, but I’m learning that it is equally important to effectively communicate your results and present your data in a clear and compelling fashion.



Biogeography and a burning boat

Is it a bad sign when the first word of a reading assignment, “biogeography,” is a word I have never seen before? Luckily, Quammen defines all the words he uses, and a second look at the spelling breaks the word down into two parts that are very familiar from high school (bio plus geography).

An illustration from Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago” showing the species of flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus) that Wallace discovered.

David Quammen’s personal style made the story of Alfred Wallace really engrossing. I was especially interested because it brought to life some of the more dry reading I have been doing for my museum studies class, particularly with respect to the changing usage of museums. Before Wallace left on his trip to Bali and other islands, he “boned up particularly on Malayan insects and reptiles at the British Museum” (p.29). At the time of Wallace, museums were primarily there for scientists to learn and study.  It was not easy or practical for people to travel the earth to see specimens first hand. In fact, some biologists published works detailing the flora and fauna of continents they had never set foot upon, solely from visiting the museums of the day. Later in the chapter, Wallace was described as sending back many specimens for sale to collectors. In fact many of the collectors would, upon their deaths, donate their collections to the government and a new museum would be founded, or an existing museum expanded. In the high tech world we live in today, you think that it would be difficult to put yourself in Alfred Wallace’s shoes. However, Quammen brings the period to life.

As I was drawn into the story, I really felt for Alfred and his trip through the Amazon. At the end of his time there when he was returning to England I felt terrible for his loss. All that work lost when his boat sank. The poor caged animals – including his tame toucan – all perished. The loss seemed insurmountable. However, if the Helen hadn’t caught fire, and all of his work lost, would Wallace have ever gone to the Malay Archipelago? Or would he simply have gone home and sifted through all of his collections and notes for the rest of his life? He pressed on despite the loss, went to the Malay  Archipelago and combined the patterns he saw on the islands with the patterns he saw in the Amazon with its natural boundaries –  putting it all together to develop the greatest series of ideas in biology. What Darwin much more elegantly coined “natural selection.”



Birds of paradise

The end of The Song of the Dodo was approached very well. Quammen still introduced a number of terms and theories, but it wasn’t an overbearing amount of knowledge saved up for the end. His discussion of Population Viability Analysis and extinction vortices was a helpful depiction of the concepts and a good elaboration of the topics as discussed in lecture. He also provided good examples of the concept of insularization when applied to habitat fragmentation, almost as a summary of the book. I appreciated that he ended on an optimistic note by traveling to Aru and finding that the bird of paradise still exists, despite the level of ecological destruction in the rest of the world. This course was definitely one of the most enjoyable and informative classes of my entire freshman year. I liked the way the material was presented between lectures and the book; they complemented each other well, yet neither required the other and so both were effective on their own.


The Greater Bird-of-paradise. (Photo: wikipedia, Andrea Lawardi)

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