Monday, May 20, 2024

In class debates: looking for thoughts on topics & structure!

EcologyIn class debates: looking for thoughts on topics & structure!

In the fall, I will be teaching my department’s graduate ecology course – a shift from my normal Intro Bio routine! I taught a section of the grad ecology course this past fall, but this coming fall will be my first time doing the whole thing. 

One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether to have a debate in the course, where students are divided into groups and asked to argue in favor of a particular position. I have very little experience with this type of assignment (as either a student or instructor), and, sadly, have never seen one of the ASN meeting debates. I’d love to get feedback about possible debate topics and about how to structure the debate! 

A key reason I started thinking about this type of assignment was seeing a few recent papers on the impact of wolves in Yellowstone, including this paper by Gable et al. and this paper by Hobbs et al., which was the focus of a recent feature in the NY Times. So, at the top of my list of ideas of debate ideas is: what was the impact of reintroducing wolves on Yellowstone, or, if framed more generally, what is the evidence that reintroducing top predators restores ecosystems? (I think I would leave it intentionally a bit vague.)

Once I started thinking about that more, I started to wonder if it would be helpful to have more than one debate topic, with students only taking part in one of the debates. One reason for that is there will probably be about 30 students in the class, and having 15 students on a side seems like a lot. 

I mentioned this general idea to Brian and Jeremy, and Jeremy immediately suggested a great topic idea: are insect abundances declining due to human activities? A more general version of that could be: is there evidence for local biodiversity (that is, alpha diversity) declines? 

Jeremy also brought up the idea of topics that are more about ecological methods or goals – for example, related to statistical machismo or whether ecology should be about general laws. I kind of like the idea of a debate topic that is about a specific ecological concept/topic (such as the impact of Yellowstone’s wolves) rather than on process of science things (which surprises me a little, because I generally love process of science stuff!)

Some of the things I’d love to hear are:

  1. Ideas for debate topics (especially for an ecology course aimed at first year grad students, but feel free to suggest topics for other types of courses, too!)
  2. Whether you think debates about specific ecological topics work better (or worse!) than ones about methods/goals/process of science.
  3. What size groups work best for in class debates, and whether it is interesting or boring/challenging if you have different groups assigned the same debate position/topic.
  4. Guidance that you give the students/debaters prior to the debate.

In my quick search for more about debates in science classrooms, I found this, which has some guidelines. Because I know very little about debates, it hadn’t occurred to me to possibly have rebuttals as part of the process (though I’ve listened to enough Smash Boom Best episodes on car rides with my kids that perhaps I should have thought of them!) I’m curious whether folks typically have rebuttals as part of the process? Thinking about rebuttals also made me realize that some debaters might want to include a verbal version of the ‘to be sure’ paragraph that is commonly recommended for OpEds, and that I recommend for manuscript discussions. My quick search also turned up this helpful resource from Northern Illinois University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. I’d love tips on other resources that might be useful!

* The only assignment I can recall having along these lines as a student was in my ecology class, but that was more of a role-playing exercise than a debate. The general topic was whether wolves should be reintroduced to Yellowstone. I took that class in either 1998 or 1999, and wolves were reintroduced in 1995, so there must have been some nuance beyond that, but I don’t recall what it was. The only other part of it that I remember is that I was assigned the role of being someone involved with Defenders of Wildlife. 

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