400-Level General Science (Writing Intensive)

ENDANGERED SPECIES: SCIENTIFIC, POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC ISSUES


I want students to acquire a working understanding of the issues. It's easy to write a paper on why we should protect monk seals or remove the goats from Haleakalā, but it is difficult to do a controversy-oriented paper. For example, a student saw a video on Hawai‘i's endangered species and experienced a gut-level reaction to its content. But an emotional reaction is not enough--students must learn to seek the information that provides substantive support for their views.--Professor Sheila Conant

We participated in writing and re-writing scientific papers, field trip reports, in-class essays, and survey reports. The big thing in this class was learning how to write scientific papers. Our big paper was the eight-page report on one of the topics discussed in class. This exercise involved me both in intense research and learning about my topic and taught me how to write a paper in scientific form.--Student

I learned through each writing activity and was surprised to find that a lot of information I found directly applied to lectures presented in class: for example, deleterious genes, demography and characteristics of species most likely to become extinct; application of economics and politics to conservation (also application to utilitarian, cultural, ethical, scientific, recreational, and aesthetic purposes of conservation); application of ESA and CITES in my research of a particular topic; application of management practices and reasons why species are endangered. I am going to learn 100%, folks, not to procrastinate--Student


COURSE GOALS

Dr. Conant's course lies in the territory where biology, economics, government, and values overlap. In this interdisciplinary zone, cool scientific study mixes with hot political and economic issues. In Dr. Conant's words:

This course is aimed at a broad audience. It is not organized specifically for science majors or even geographers and planners, though it may be useful if they are oriented towards a career in wildlife management. I intend it to be a course in which both undergraduate and graduate students can get a complete experience. By including, for example, political systems and economics, we step outside the realm of science. I would like one benefit to be that students can leave the course with an understanding of endangered species legislation and regulation so that they can review the Congressional Record, see how their Congressman voted, and make intelligent decisions as voters.

Dr. Conant opens her four-page writing guideline with the goals of the writing activities

"The writing process will not only enable you to learn more about the course topic, but also give you a chance to do some library research and a taste of how to write in a scientific style."

She reinforces the importance of writing by requiring first drafts of two major papers. The first drafts receive extensive instructor commentary and are returned with a comment sheet that evaluates organization, citations, grammar and style, and content. The revised draft is also accompanied with a comment sheet that compares changes in each category.

Students' organizational, writing, speaking, and collaborative skills are honed when they become endangered-species experts in an "Endangered Plant Conservation Exercise." Teams visit and map at least one site of an endangered plant population, then make an oral and written presentation to the class. The importance of their work is underscored by their sharing of the data with the Natural Heritage Program of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i and the U.S. Fish Wand Wildlife Endangered Species Program. Several shorter writing activities encourage students to evaluate and summarize field trips and classroom topics.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. RESEARCH PAPERS
Students write two research papers on approved topics of their choice relating to course material. The papers may take the form of literature reviews, evaluations of a controversial subject involving endangered species, or description and evaluation of processes and/or programs related to endangered species. Students must rewrite the longer paper but have the option of rewriting the shorter one after assessing how the instructor rated the first draft. Citations and organization are discussed in the instructor's writing guideline. Students are referred to the Writing Workshop for help on spelling and grammar.

PURPOSE: The papers teach students procedures of literature search, critical\evaluation, and scientific communication. The instructor's reviews, coupled with mandatory band optional rewrites, help students improve both content knowledge and writing effectiveness.

"Doing the research paper I learned about many things I never even considered when thinking about that topic. I never realized how complicated it was to design a reserve area for endangered species. The papers helped me to investigate and incorporate some of the ideas of conservation and management explained in class. They were a very useful learning experience."--Student

"The research paper helped me figure out the darn computer system at the library. It helped me learn how to write and document a proper scientific paper."--Student

2. SHORT REFLECTIVE ESSAYS
Several one-page papers focus on a class topic or activity. Students write up their field trips, analyze articles they read, or apply concepts learned in class (e.g. how to predict whether a species is on the verge of extinction). These papers are returned with instructor commentary related to clarity, cohesiveness, and grammar.
PURPOSE: In these short writing assignments, students reflect on what they learn from readings, speakers, and field trips. Written reflections create the text in a class that uses primary source readings rather than a textbook and one in which most learning is based on student activities and oral transmission of information. Through these reflective essays, students develop their ability to think and write critically about the complex social and ecological issues that surround endangered-species management.
3. GROUP REPORT ON ENDANGERED PLANT MANAGEMENT
Peer collaboration is an integral part of the "Endangered Plant Conservation Exercise." Teams of students acting as endangered-species experts visit one or more sites of an endangered plant to assess its population, physical distribution, reproductive status; and record evidence of disturbance. They also determine who owns the land and what its land use (zoning) status is. Based on these ecological and political findings, the group designs a long-term, comprehensive management program, including plans for monitoring, control of exotic species, and human access. "[In doing the scientific paper] I learned a great deal about citing references properly. I also researched extensively, which expanded my knowledge on the topic of managing endangered species." --Student
Students create a piece of valuable new knowledge that is shared with The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Program. The written, referenced report contains five pages of text with maps and/or photos on additional pages. The group also presents its findings and management plan to the assembled class. Oral and written reports are graded separately, with everyone in the group receiving the same grade.
PURPOSE: Dr. Conant's two-page handout explains the task and provides directions and evaluation criteria. It states that the objectives of the endangered plant activity are to learn about conservation and management in real-life settings and to improve language arts and collaborative skills. Her directions encourage students to build upon the strengths of group members to produce the highest quality products.
4. TAKE-HOME ESSAY EXAM
Dr. Conant's exam takes the form of realistic and topical scenarios: the student may be a Hawai‘i preserve manager developing a two-year plan and budget, or a member of Hawai‘i's Rain Forest Action Committee presenting testimony on a bill before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. Other questions may require the student to apply the Endangered Species Act to an animal in danger of habitat destruction or describe the characteristics that a given species must have to be considered endangered. All answers are limited in length to encourage efficient writing.
PURPOSE: The take-home essay exam shows that students are expected to think and write like endangered-species experts by the end of the term. Unlike the traditional two-hour final exam which encourages memorization and regurgitation, the take-home exam questions require students to apply critical thinking, research, writing, and revising skills in the solving of problems they might experience in a resource management career.

RELATED WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. INSTRUCTOR RESPONSE/STUDENT REVISION
The instructor formally establishes response and revision as a crucial part of learning how to write scientific papers. She requires a rewrite of the first research paper and lets the student decide on revising the second. When she returns the first draft, she attaches a comment sheet that evaluates and scores the paper's 1) organization-10 points, 2) citations-20 points, 3) grammar and style-20 points, and 4) content-50 points. Each category is subdivided to provide more specific feedback. In the category "grammar and style," for example, a student sees how correct use of grammar, clear writing, and correct spelling contribute to the overall assessment.

The revised paper is accompanied by the same comment sheet modified to compare changes in each category. Dr. Conant also provides commentary on all written work.

PURPOSE: The mandatory revision accompanied by abundant and specific feedback shows that the instructor wants her students to recognize that learning to write like an endangered-species expert requires practice. Altogether, Dr. Conant's students carry out seven writing activities of varied types, not including pop quizzes and the take-home final.

Professor Conant comments on her class (excerpts from an interview):

Students like classes where they work hard but feel that the tasks are reasonable and meaningful. The Endangered Plant Exercise is done in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a similar wildlife conservation agency. One member of each group is responsible for making the contact with the agency. The students are able to gather data and carry out research that the agency would not be able to do for lack of time and money. Their written materials are meaningful in a real-world context.

It is also important for the teacher to point out what is expected and to give students opportunities to improve during the course. I use a green pen so students won't get a negative reaction and I write a lot so students find out what I'm thinking. I also attach a comment sheet that summarizes my evaluation of their papers.

I made up this critique sheet because I had thought out my criteria and decided I should let students know what they are. It helps me to grade more consistently, too, because I won't be able to hide my biases if, for example, a student happens to write about an interest of mine.

One regret I have is the time it takes. An essay on the same topic by every student is easier to grade. But through the writing-intensive process students can choose topics they are interested in and learn skills that they can apply. Knowing they appreciate this really helps.