Smithsonian-Mason Semester teaches conservation in practice

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Title of Abstract: Smithsonian-Mason Semester teaches conservation in practice

Name of Author: James McNeil
Author Company or Institution: George Mason University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Agricultural Sciences, Conservation Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology, Environmental Management, Environmental Studies, General Biology, Integrative Biology, Organismal Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: A mixture of the above, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Conservation Biology, Conservation Studies, Collaborative, Integrated, Transdisciplinary

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Jennifer Buff, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation Anneke DeLuycker, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation Stephanie Lessard-Pilon, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation A. Alonso Aguirre, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Smithsonian-Mason Semester for Conservation Studies (SMS) grew out of a meeting in 2001 funded by the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE). Forty representatives from 21 academic, government and professional organizations met to discuss strategies for reforming undergraduate education in conservation studies. Similar to the Vision and Change report, which advocates for more student-centered education and a shift towards class formats that foster critical thinking skills, recommendations from these meetings focused on ways of teaching conservation studies that mirror the way that it is practiced by professionals. One of the goals for the program included involving conservation practitioners and non-traditional partners representing disciplines related to conservation but not often included in undergraduate courses on the subject (i.e. economics, conflict resolution, communication, policy, management, public education, ethics). Another goal was to engage students in real-world case studies and projects that illustrate the multi-faceted and transdisciplinary nature of conservation studies and provide them opportunities to practice skills in a meaningful way. Finally, the program intended to establish guidelines for what information and skills graduates in the conservation field should possess and act as a model for that high level of training. The result of these discussions was the formation of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in 2008. Housed at the 3,200 acre Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, the School is a partnership between the Smithsonian Institution and George Mason University (Mason) to provide the type of instruction that would meet the goals outlined by the FIPSE meeting.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Undergraduates in the SMS participate in an immersive, integrated 16-credit semester where they live on-site at the SCBI for the entire semester. The program is open to students from any major with a demonstrated commitment to conservation careers. In the program students are introduced to theoretical frameworks, explore them with hands-on experiences, and apply the knowledge to novel scenarios. Faculty explicitly discuss how connections between different fields are essential to creating solutions to difficult conservation issues. For example, one activity allows students to visit with Smithsonian scientists working on coastal climate change research, help collect data related to that research, discuss ways the effects of climate change can be mediated, collect data about public perceptions of climate change in Front Royal and then present their findings to local high school students. This activity takes the students from a theoretical understanding of climate change through to the practical implications of the issue. Along the way the students practice a variety of skills, from methods of experimental design to strategies for effective communication. Students also work, individually and in groups, on semester-long projects that require them to take the information and skills they are learning and apply them to a topic of their own choosing. This project is specifically designed to sharpen their writing, research, and oral presentation skills and guide them step-by-step through the revision process. For example, in the spring 2013 semester, students worked on developing monitoring plans for benthic macroinvertebrates at a local organic farm. Many students commented that it was a valuable experience to take a project from start to finish on their own, and some students even stayed after the semester was over to continue working on their project at the request of farm employees.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Since the program’s inception in 2008, 104 students have completed the program. Student assessment has been a key component to monitor student learning achievements. In addition to standardized university course evaluations, students have three one-on-one interviews with faculty members during the semester and complete informal surveys of course content using SurveyMonkey (online assessment tool) every four weeks. The most significant tool used to monitor the progress towards the program goals is a formal Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) test (, Wisconsin Center for Educational Research), administered at the beginning and end of the semester. Significant class time is set aside for these meetings and formal evaluations, but the results from 5 years of SALG testing show an improvement of students’ understanding of conservation biology in their answers to questions such as “Presently I understand the relationships between [course] main concepts” (mean increase in rating 1.54 on a 6 point scale (+/- 0.45), and “Presently I am confident that I understand the subject [conservation studies]” (mean increase in rating 1.16 on a 6 point scale (+/- 0.28).

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We see the success of this program through the high rate of placement of alumni in internships, graduate school, and careers linked to conservation. Of the 78 students for which we have data, 51 of them (65%) are pursuing activities or have held positions related to conservation work and the others are completing their undergraduate degrees. Many students state that this program is the reason they enrolled at Mason, and students from both inside and outside Mason enroll because of the referral of previous peer participants. At a larger level, the success of this program has led to increased involvement from conservation professionals, such that we were able to support a second program of study that began in fall 2012. While in residence at SCBI during the Semester students become part of the community of practice, which leads not only to powerful networking opportunities but the realization by staff and faculty that participation in this program can lead to tangible change in the field of conservation. A further sign of the success of our curriculum is the enthusiastic participation of practicing conservation professionals, many who go beyond merely presenting a lecture to sharing days of their time to show students how they actually conduct their work. All students in the SMS are required to spend one day a week in a practicum experience where they shadow a conservation professional. Additionally, the close interaction with faculty a residential program facilitates and flexible scheduling that allows for deeper experiences has created an environment where students are mentored, not just instructed.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The intensity of this model of instruction means planning and adequate staff support are essential to its success. Full-time instructional faculty manage guest instructors, organize field activities, and design and implement activities integrating multiple disciplines that enable students to hone their critical thinking, writing, and oral presentation skills. Additionally, the SMS cohort size is capped at 20 students to help manage field activities and enable the students to receive individualized attention and mentoring. Larger classes would become logistically impossible and the close peer-to-peer and faculty-student mentoring connections essential to the program would become especially difficult.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Sharing the model of this unique program involves strategies such as visits to classes at Mason and other colleges and universities to describe it to students and faculty, maintaining a vibrant online and social media presence, and attending professional conferences where this model of instruction can be discussed with other instructors, such as the Society for Conservation Biology annual meeting. Expanding these opportunities are an important part of the future plans for dissemination, but we have found the strongest advocates for our program are faculty, professionals, and alumni. Their testimonials are the greatest asset we have in sharing this information. This value is embodied in the following quote from an undergraduate student in the program from fall 2010: “At the start of the Semester I was afraid of graduating. I was not sure of where to go after school ended, or of how to find a rewarding job that would facilitate the changes that I hope to see in the world of conservation. Now I am eager to finish with school and apply what I have learned to the world of ecology and conservation biology.”

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the many people at George Mason University and the Smithsonian Institution who helped create the semester and continue to support it; this work would not be possible without them. We especially thank, Anne Marchant, Jennifer Sevin, Tom Wood, Kate Christen, Andrew Wingfield, M. Randy Gabel, Sonya Kessler, and Kari Morefeld, who have been primary semester faculty, staff and teaching assistants in the past. We also thank Amada Schochet for the use of her quote.