Cultivating Skills for 21st Century Professionals: Development and Assessment of Process Skills in Ecology and Conservation Biology Students

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Background/Question/Methods: Understanding and conserving the biosphere increasingly requires proficiency in skills including critical thinking, data analysis, oral communication, broad synthesis of information and teamwork across diverse groups. However, a real concern exists that US undergraduate science students do not currently develop these important process skills needed as professionals. First, our work asks “how can we best ‘operationalize’ teaching of process skills?” Second, we must also discover how to evaluate development of specific process skills in our students. Such assessment allows us to determine if we have succeeded in teaching these skills with a gain or loss in content understanding. Here, we present the design and preliminary results of a recently launched experimental study aimed at these two tasks. The study brings together faculty from diverse institutions and professional conservation biologists to create and validate a set of instructional materials for process skills development. Following development, selected faculty will pilot teaching and assessment materials in diverse classroom settings.

Project participants, led by investigators from the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, designed a multi-year research experiment in two stages: (1) development of instructional materials and associated assessment tools for three skills (i.e., critical thinking, oral communication, and data analysis), and (2) application of these materials in the classroom under two different instruction modalities, individual reflection versus intensive classroom discussion of the skill. These two modalities investigate student development of the targeted process skill and how intensity of a teaching intervention influences student success.

Results/Conclusions: For each selected skill, faculty participants and consultants developed two exercises that focused on ecology and conservation biology topics, either new or based on the modules produced by the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP; http://ncep.amnh.org). Participants also created the following assessment tools: student self-assessment questionnaires focusing on their confidence for each skill, content gains assessments, and rubrics for assessing skill performance. These will be applied pre and post application of the instructional materials.

Our plans include validation and finalization of materials over summer 2011 and pilots in the classrooms occurring in at least 14 US institutions (including Puerto Rico) beginning in fall 2011. While the study focuses on these skills in the context of ecology and conservation biology, our approach and results should be of direct use for other related, integrative fields such as natural resource management, sustainable development studies, and public health. We welcome faculty input and interest in the project.


Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting (ESA)


Austin, TX