Course Description: Ecology in the News Summer 2018
Have you read headlines in the Washington Post or New York Times and thought about the ecology behind them? For example, recent hurricanes in the United States have led to increases in local mosquito populations. To explain this pattern to a general audience, journalists must communicate foundational ecological concepts like population growth, infectious disease, and species interactions. How can we make connections between popular press and the real, underlying science, and how can learning to make these connections help us make sure that scientists communicate effectively with the general public, policy makers, and others? Although science courses often emphasize the use of primary, peer-reviewed literature in scientific journals, the majority of people get their information from non-scientific sources, like the news media.
In this course, we will cover foundational ecological concepts, including aspects of population ecology, species interactions, community structure, and ecosystem processes, using peer-reviewed scientific literature, field trips, demonstrations, and lectures. We will then locate and read articles from the popular press that address these same concepts and discuss how mass media covers these topics, what they do and do not effectively communicate to the public, and what we can learn about science from media sources. An understanding of fundamental scientific concepts can be an essential tool in understanding headlines in today’s news. It is important to evaluate the evidence provided. In addition to gaining an understanding of foundational ecological topics through reading popular and scientific articles, students will have the opportunity to interview a science writer from Science Magazine about how to effectively convey scientific concepts to a lay audience and workshop their own article. At the end of the term, students will give final presentations about one mainstream media article and the relevant primary literature article that details the science underlying that issue. Students will ultimately learn how to read ecological scientific literature, critique media coverage of scientific articles, and practice communicating scientific information in both oral and written formats.In college and beyond, understanding scientific concepts and the ability to synthesize and evaluate evidence are useful skills. In this course, we will practice each of these skills while learning foundational ecological concepts.