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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Geosciences : Ecological Science

Undergraduate Course: Critical Thinking in Ecological and Environmental Sciences (ECSC10034)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Geosciences CollegeCollege of Science and Engineering
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 4 Undergraduate) AvailabilityNot available to visiting students
SCQF Credits10 ECTS Credits5
SummaryIn this course you work in a forum comprising 5 to 6 students, overseen by one designated expert (your course tutor, a member of academic staff).

On a roughly weekly basis you will:
» discuss scientific issues, methods, processes and outcomes, based on analysis of peer-reviewed literature (i.e. journal articles);
» receive direct feedback on your critical thinking, speaking and writing skills;
» examine the research process in ecological and environmental sciences, becoming better prepared for completion of your dissertation projects.

Course description ¿ Introductory session on Wednesday 21st September, 12:00-13:00 (Crew Building, Rm 302).

¿ 12 x 1 hr group tutorials through the whole of Semester 1 and the first half of Semester 2. The first four tutorials are staff-led and the remainder will be student-led. The times will be specific to your group and dates confirmed by your staff member.

Students are required to prepare for each tutorial by completing the assigned readings (typically two journal articles), as well as any specific inquiries agreed and allocated within your group. You should be detailed and critical in your reading - allow plenty of time. Make notes so that you can share your thoughts effectively at the tutorials.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Students MUST have passed:
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements Students must be enrolled on Ecological and Environmental Sciences
Additional Costs No
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2022/23, Not available to visiting students (SS1) Quota:  None
Course Start Full Year
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 100 ( Seminar/Tutorial Hours 12, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 2, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 86 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) 1st written assignment and formative feedback
Before your fourth tutorial (date to be confirmed by your tutor) you will submit a written piece via the Learn page ¿ maximum 1000 words ¿ on the following topic: ¿Which is more valuable for advancing ecological and environmental sciences: observations, experiments or models?¿
You will be expected to take a position in your response, arguing particularly for one of the three options. Your staff tutor will provide personal feedback on your submission in 1:1 sessions held in lieu of tutorial 5, including a grade for guidance. At this meeting, your course tutor will also provide feedback on your contribution at the tutorial sessions held until that point.

Running a tutorial and 2nd written assignment ¿ summative assessment
Here you are required to demonstrate your capacity to synthesise published research, addressing a clear current science question in ecological and/or environmental sciences (of your choice).
You will be assessed according to: (A) your running a tutorial, and (B) a written report.

Part A ¿ Running a tutorial (25% course mark)
Each student member in your group will take turns to lead tutorials 6¿10/11 in a collectively agreed order and in relation to their particular question. One week in advance of each tutorial, the student tutor must share two journal articles as a basis for their discussion. These must be circulated (as PDFs or links) to all members of their group, including the staff tutor. The student tutor will then lead the tutorial discussion using tutorials 1¿4 as a model ¿ asking key questions, guiding the other students towards synthesis, and providing context from their broader reading. Within the time limits of the tutorial the student tutor should provide a synthesis of the overall discussion and a conclusion. The staff tutor will then end the tutorial by providing verbal comment on the student¿s synthesis, offering guidance for preparation towards Part B (below). They will also offer more general comments in relation to the scientific process exemplified by the discussion. The student must allow 5¿10 minutes for these course tutor inputs.
The staff tutor will assess your tutorial for:
(i) Management of the tutorial discussion, including time-keeping [10%]
(ii) Evidence of good preparation, e.g. content of introductory e-mail, opening tutorial statement, quality of questions posed, quality of background reading [25%]
(iii) Ability to lead and synthesise discussion occurring during the tutorial [40%]
(iv) Conclusion to the discussion, including key areas for future research [25%]

Part B ¿ Written synthesis report
Each student will prepare a referenced written synthesis (¿perspective¿) in relation to their question, based on their own reading and drawing on input from their group during the tutorial in Part A. The text must not exceed 1000 words, but one figure or table that assists in communication should be included. This figure or table must be original, i.e. generated by the student. There must be at least 10 literature citations, but there must also be no more than 20. Note that text in the reference list, and in the figure or table and its caption, are not included in the word count. The deadline for your synthesis submission is common to all groups and group members: 12:00 noon on Friday 17th February 2023. Submission must be via Turnitin, using the box set up on the course Learn page.
Assessment will be according to the following categories:
(i) Identification of a theme and set of ideas to warrant a written ¿perspective¿ [20%]
(ii) Selection of quality literature evidence in support and synthesis of ideas [20%]
(iii) An original figure or table to convey the synthesis of the theme and/or evidence [20%]
(iv) Clarity of summary and a specific conclusion [20%]
(v) Structure, balance and quality of written communication within 1000 words [20%]

Feedback Following submission of the first formative assessment, your course tutor will provide personal feedback in 1:1 sessions held in lieu of tutorial 5, including a grade for guidance. At this meeting, your course tutor will also provide feedback on your contribution at the tutorial sessions held until that point.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. A broader, deeper knowledge of the research process in ecological and environmental sciences.
  2. Improved critical capacity in relation to assessing value and originality of research.
  3. Understanding of the process of structuring and publishing a scientific manuscript.
Reading List
Reading lists for tutorials will be found on the course Learn page.

Common readings (tutorials 1¿4)

Tutorial 1: Theoretical Ecology (i) ¿ Diversity of life

Hutchinson, G. E. (1959) Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals? American Naturalist, 145-159.
1. Why are there so many different kinds of animals? What is Hutchinson¿s main thesis here? What are the key ecological concepts that derive from this paper ¿ Why is it a classic?
2. What are the arguments put forward to explain why increased food web links lead to increasing community stability? Has this theory stood the test of time?
3. What are the arguments advanced to explain reduced diversity at high latitudes? Are they convincing?
4. How testable is the theory of limiting similarity in the real world?

Hutchinson, G. & MacArthur, R. (1959) A theoretical ecological model of size distributions among species of animals. American Naturalist, 117-125.
1. What field has resulted from this seminal paper in ecology? ¿ Why is it a classic?!
2. What does table 1 show? Can you write a caption that would explain it clearly?
3. Do you think the paper is well written? How does it compare to more modern papers you might have read?
4. When might the body size-species richness distribution break down with real world data? Does it apply across all spatial scales?

Tutorial 2: Theoretical Ecology (ii) ¿ Community processes

Gleason, H.A. (1927) Further views on the succession concept. Ecology 8: 299-326.
1. What modern concepts in the field of ecology can be derived back to this paper? ¿ Why is it a classic?!
2. Gleason¿s paper suggests that vegetation is constantly changing, succession always occurring, and that thus ¿climax communities¿ cannot exist. Do you think he is correct? Is there is a situtaion in which the term ¿climax community¿ could be useful?
3. How does Gleason¿s model of succession differ from Clements (the person who formalized the term arguably in the ecological literature)? What key concept does Gleason think is really important in driving vegetation succession?
4. What does Gleason say about Clements and others in this paper? Do you think this was a jolly discussion among friends or a contentious issue over which they argued? How do you think Scientific discourse differed back in the 1920s from today?
Hubbell, S. P. (1979) Tree dispersion, abundance, and diversity in a tropical dry forest. Science, 203, 1299-1309.

1. What is the major finding of this paper? What was the previous theory that it contradicts? Why is it a classic?
2. In a tropical forest context, what is the dominant mechanisms for species creation and species loss? Are these processes in balance?

3. Why do you think tropical forests have so many tree species? Are they specialists for particular niches? Or are they functionally similar and just not in competition?

4. What famous ecological theory did Hubell go on to postulate? Why would Hubble come up with this theory from his work in Barrow Colorado Island in Panama? Why was and is that theory so controversial to this day? What do you think about it?

Tutorial 3: Experimental design and statistical analysis

Hurlbert, S.H. (1984) Pseudo-replication and the design of ecological field experiments. Ecological Monographs 54: 187-211.
1. How often has this paper been cited in the ecological literature? Is it still getting cited today? ¿ Why is it a classic?
2. Explain in 100 words, aimed at a 15-year old at school, what is pseudo-replication, and how to avoid it in his/her biology experiment.
3. Explain the difference between simple, temporal and sacrificial pseudo-replication. Is one of these easier to account for in statistical analyses than the others?
4. How do you balance perfect experimental design with feasibility in ecology? Can you always design the perfect experiment?
5. What do you think about Hurlbert picking on specific studies in his famous paper? Is that a fair thing to do in the scientific literature or not?

Tutorial 4: Ecosystem-scale experiments

Likens, G. E., Bormann, F. H., Johnson, N. M., Fisher, D. & Pierce, R. S. (1970) Effects of forest cutting and herbicide treatment on nutrient budgets in the Hubbard Brook watershed-ecosystem. Ecological Monographs, 40, 23-47.

1. What did this study do that had never been done before? ¿ Why is it a classic?
2. This study is often used to exemplify the environmental problems with deforestation. But how widely should the conclusions from this study be applied?
3. Do you think the experimental design was effective? Would you change it if doing the same experiment again?
4. Does this study suffer from pseudo replication based on the discussion of the Hurlbert paper last week?
5. Is this study still running? What are the value of long-term experiments to ecology? How do we figure out what experiments to set up for the long term and how do we finding funding for these experiments? What is the LTER (Long-term Ecological Research Network) in the US, should Britain have something similar, or is this not a good use of science funding?
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Presentation and communications, in writing, summarising, and group working.
Study Abroad N/A
Additional Class Delivery Information
KeywordsEcological and Environmental Sciences
Course organiserDr Saran Sohi
Tel: (0131 6)51 4471
Course secretaryMiss Francesca Nadal Finnegan
Tel: (0131 6)50 4842
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