Archive

Natural History Renaissance by Steve Trombulak and Tom Fleischner (volume 1, 2007)

It is our misfortune to live in an age of rapid biological decline. Ever since the emergence of Homo sapiens as a tool-using species, capable of altering natural communities and harvesting species past their abilities to regenerate, species extinction and degradation of habitats have become increasingly common. We have come to the point where we can now speak of living in the time of the sixth mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth with no sense of hyperbole (Jablonski 1991, Wilson 1992). But this human-induced mass extinction progresses largely unnoticed–this age of biological decline is, not coincidentally, also an age of human indifference to the more-than-human world. …

Five Myths About Writing About Teaching About Natural History by Steve Trombulak (volume 2, 2008)

Yes, the title of this editorial is a mouthful. Yet it makes an important point. Over the past year and a half since the Natural History Network launched the Journal of Natural History Education, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with numerous people about developing articles for the journal. … Without exception, all of them had interesting and important stories to tell about teaching natural history. But also without exception, my conversations with them … revealed that teachers are enormously intimidated by and uncertain about telling their stories. …

Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place by Fred Taylor and John Tallmadge (volume 3, 2009)

We gather at sunset on a rocky promontory that juts into Low Lake, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, near the town of Ely in Northern Minnesota. We’re here for a six-day seminar, “Stalking the Spirit of Place,” with doctoral students from the Union Institute, a non-traditional university for mid-career adult learners. Unlike traditional doctoral courses, Union’s seminars are designed to model interdisciplinary inquiry, engage multiple intelligences, and demonstrate how to create a learning community where scholarly knowledge is integrated with individual life experience. …

A Bird in the Hand: a place-based, hands-on curriculum in ornithology by Steve Trombulak (volume 3, 2009)

One of the most widely appreciated branches of the Tree of Life is that of the birds. It is almost certainly no exaggeration to say that we know more about the natural history of birds—including their distribution, ecology, behavior, and taxonomy—than of any other group of animals. Part of the reason for this that they are so easy to study; they are numerous, morphologically diverse, colorful, primarily day-active, and large enough to see with the naked, or slightly aided, eye. These same characteristics have led birds to be among the most popular of organisms for study in natural history classes; in general, students get far more excited about the natural world when they are given the opportunity to encounter animals that are easy to see, beautiful, and readily identifiable to species. …

Natural History From the Ground Up: developing a college-level natural history program in the new millennium by David Gilligan (volume 3, 2009)

In their Autumn 2001 issue, Orion magazine listed a scant nine institutions of higher education with programs in natural history. That same year I had recently completed my graduate work in Natural History and Ecology and was teaching field courses for Prescott College in Arizona, one of the listed institutions. Around this time, I began my own search for college-level programs with roots in natural history, convinced that there had to be more than had made the pages of Orion. It was a tricky search because, as many of us know, at most colleges and universities natural history lies hidden at the foundation of a variety of disciplines, mostly in the natural sciences, but seldom manifests as a degree track, a professorial position, or even in a course title. …

Revitalizing Natural History Education By Design by Matthew Kolan and Walter Poleman (volume 3, 2009)

We are wired to learn. Anthropologists (Hall 1977, Wells 2004) remind us that learning is one of our most basic evolutionary survival mechanisms (we don’t jump particularly high or run very fast). Over the last 60,000 years, humans have inhabited every continent and thousands of different ecosystems – from desert to arctic. Yet our biological make-up has changed very little in this time (Glantz and Pearce 1989). Humans have learned to survive in these extreme environments – creating knowledge, stories, myths, languages, and ways of life deeply connected to and reflective of the unique features of a given place. …

Challenges and Opportunities by Steve Trombulak (volume 5, 2011)

The mission of the Natural History Network is to promote the value of natural history by discussing and disseminating ideas and techniques on its successful practice to educators, scientists, artists, writers, the media, and the public at large. For the last four years, this journal has worked to promote that mission by providing a venue for information of use to natural history educators. The Network’s board has learned that open-access publication, when standards are maintained, is an excellent tool for disseminating ideas and perspectives to help fuel a renaissance in the practice of natural history. As a result, at the end of 2010, the board decided to expand the range of its publication efforts to provide an outlet for a wider range of perspectives about natural history beyond just education. Rather than launch a new journal, however, we decided to expand the scope of the existing one. …

1. Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America by John Anderson (volume 5, 2011)

Whenever I first visit someone’s house the first thing that I find myself doing is scanning for bookshelves. The absence of books can tell one almost as much as their presence, and if a new friend has an interesting collection, oh the joy of discovery and immediate connection! Observation suggests that Natural Historians are often great readers. Some of them are also great writers. The difficulty often is in making time to find the books that you really ought to read, both for general knowledge and also for inspiration and re-engagement with our particular many-headed practice….

Rewilding Natural History by Peter H. Kahn, Jr. and Patricia H. Hasbach (volume 5, 2011)

Many people who currently advocate for nature, and for the importance of nature in human lives, focus on what can be termed domestic, nearby, everyday nature. Nature might be a favorite tree in one’s neighborhood, or a local park, or one’s garden, or one’s pet, or what Tallmadge (2004) refers to as the “buzzing, flapping, scurrying, chewing, photosynthesizing life forms” all around us in the urban landscape. Domestic nature is important. It’s what most of us have close at hand. People can relate to it. People can garner immediate benefits by accessing it. But truth be told, domestic nature is only half the story. It’s only half of what we need….

From Dioramas to Dragonflies: Redefining the Role of Natural History in Environmental Science by Kirsten Martin (volume 5, 2011)

Each time I teach an environmental science class, I bring my students to a stream near campus. The students are animated, glad to be freed from the confines of the lecture hall, and unaware of what faces them at the streamside. I stand in the middle of the stream, watching the water ripple across the rocks and over the toes of my battered old boots. This stream hides many stories within its rock-bound borders, stories of the struggle of life. …

2. Henry Walter Bates’ The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspects of Nature under the Equator, during Eleven Years of Travel by John Anderson (volume 5, 2011)

Continuing our “tropical” theme from the previous column, I would like to recommend the reader’s attention to Henry Walter Bates’ The Naturalist on the River Amazons. My edition is University of California Press, 1962, but there are many printings, including a free on-line Google facsimile of the original. First published in 1863, the title pretty much says it all. …

3. Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle by John Anderson (volume 5, 2011)

Darwin always said that of all the books he wrote, he had the greatest affection for his “first born” – the volume most of us know simply as The Voyage of the Beagle (Modern Library 2001, but many many other editions). This book, first published as the Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N. (gasp!) originally formed a portion of the four-volume Narrative of the two surveying voyages accomplished by the Beagle and her consorts that had been edited by Fitzroy, and intended as the official account of the expedition. …

4. Michael Canfield’s Field Notes on Science and Nature by John Anderson (volume 5, 2011)

Part way through the by now classic film Young Frankenstein, the heroes are wandering disconsolately through a lab, trying to reconstruct the work of the Master. “If he had only left us a clue, a hint… some suggestion” one remarks. Sitting on the desk is an enormous book entitled HOW I DID IT by Victor Frankenstein.  Reading accounts of other people’s research I have often wondered “how they did it.” …

Why Natural History Matters by Tom Fleischner (volume 5, 2011)

The world needs natural history now more than ever. Because natural history – which I have defined as “a practice of intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy” (Fleischner 2001, 2005) – makes us better, more complete human beings. This process of “careful, patient … sympathetic observation” (Norment 2008) – paying attention to the larger than human world – allows us to build better human societies, ones that are less destructive and dysfunctional. Natural history helps us see the world, and thus ourselves, more accurately. Moreover, it encourages and inspires better stewardship of the Earth. …

5. Frederick von Hohenstaufen’s The Art of Falconry by John Anderson (volume 5, 2011)

Frederick von Hohenstaufen was born into troubled times. By one account, his mother gave birth to him in the public market place in order to convince the skeptical nobility of the legitimacy of the imperial heir. While this tale is most unlikely, Frederick had to put up with continuous challenges to his authority throughout a tumultuous career. Orphaned as an infant, the future Holy Roman Emperor was raised by the Pope, who was convinced that in Frederick he would have the perfect surrogate to go on Crusade and restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem. …

 Listening to Children: Perceptions of Nature by Donald J. Burgess and Jolie Mayer-Smith (volume 5, 2011)

This exploratory study investigates children’s perceptions and experiences of nature during a residential outdoor environmental education program and contributes to an understanding of how nature experiences arouse biophilia, a love of life and all living things. Using interviews, naturalistic observation, and artifact collection, we studied children’s responses to nature during and following their participation in a residential environmental education program known as Mountain School. We explored how an examination of biophilic sensibilities can help researchers and educators focus on the vital intersection between the individual, environment, and action. Our study suggests that children’s perceptions of nature are varied and dependent on prior experiences. Our study indicates that after spending time in the wilderness program at Mountain School, children’s perceptions of nature changed. Children formed connections with the fauna and flora of the North Cascades. Our use of biophilia as a framework for inquiry demands that we consider what it means to include the larger biotic community in our discussion of educational reform. This research contributes to an evolving understanding of the relationship between people and the natural world. …

Seeing the Natural History Way by Laura Sewall (volume 5, 2011)

Perception is one of the greatest of all natural gifts. It provides continuous flows of energy and information—enhancing facets of the environment, directing our movements, and providing pleasure to most mammals. It is as diverse as are species and individuals, and in humans it is ideally made up of beautiful forms and saturated colors, sweet and erotic scents, the easy cadence of crickets, and clear survival signals. … I am now suggesting that such shifts in perceptual capacity—or rather, the recovery of our finely evolved sensory abilities—feed forward into shifts in consciousness. With an eye tuned to pattern, movement, beauty, and the secret lives of birds and bees, the world brightens and beckons, and what one values becomes a matter of where one stands, literally, and of the wilder and complex relations there. The fact of interdependence—between pollinators, flowers, and food; between birds, fish, coastal waters, and coastal communities—is witnessed directly and becomes deeply known. No longer abstract, our mutual dependence may then inform our behavior, and upholding the common good becomes enlightened self-interest. …

Mount Auburn Cemetery by Clare Walker Leslie (volume 5, 2011)

Today, I have come to Mount Auburn to see what is here – no lions, no tigers. Just minutes away from the daily business of my usual life, I enter a world so different from where I have just been – into the calming presence of chickadees, robins, a catbird, bumblebee, turtle, fall asters, and drone of cicadas. Nothing special – everything special …

Linked Through Story: Natural Science, Nature Writing, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge by John Tallmadge (volume 5, 2011)

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has become topical in discussions of natural history as a key component of environmental research, education, and practice. Likewise, contemporary nature writing has drawn on it to illuminate and critique Western values, practices, and beliefs. This paper explores the function of narrative in the mythological and classification systems of tribal peoples as well as in Western science, arguing that story may provide a useful way of understanding and linking traditional ecological knowledge with scientific and literary natural history. The argument draws on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the differences between scientific and mythological thinking, Martin Buber’s doctrine of relationships, and Barry Lopez’s ideas about the interaction between landscape and narrative. …

6. Alexander Skutch’s A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm by John Anderson (volume 6, 2012)

Alexander Skutch needs little introduction to any enthusiast of tropical birds. Skutch was born in the United States, but he spent more than sixty years living on a small farm in southern Costa Rica observing and writing about Neotropical ornithology, natural history, and conservation. In A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm (published in 1980), Skutch recounts the pleasures and pains of his years living under what would be for many of us quite primitive conditions on the edge of the jungle while pursuing his Thoreau-esque quest to “live simply in an unspoiled natural setting, while studying nature like a scientist, all without harming the objects of my study, or the other living things around me.” …

7. John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steve Trombulak (volume 6, 2012)

Some relationships are legendary: Laurel and Hardy, Lennon and McCartney, Stanley and Livingstone, Astaire and Rodgers, … Han and Chewbacca. While each person individually showed an impressive level of accomplishment on their own, together they formed a creative, iconic couplet that transcended who they were by themselves. John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts together formed such a pair. …

8. Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns by John D. Lloyd (volume 6, 2012)

Natural-history writing comes in many flavors. Sometimes it takes the form of a catalog of observations of plants and animals, other times it presents accounts of exploration and adventure in the wild, and sometimes it is as much about the people as the landscape that shapes them. Nonetheless, perhaps because its subjects and themes appear so constant, it has to me a timeless feel. For better or worse, the style of the narrative tends towards the uniform, even as the subjects and themes differ widely. What sets apart Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns, first published in 1935, and what makes it such a unique contribution to this canon, is its blend of modern and classical styles. …

Local Species Trading Cards: An Activity to Encourage Scientific Creativity and Ecological Predictions from Species’ Traits by Jay M. Fitzsimmons (volume 6, 2012)

Species’ traits (e.g., body size, generation time, diet breadth) are being used by biologists with increasing frequency to predict ecological responses to modern environmental threats. Given the importance of traits for ecological research, and the accessibility of traits to learners, it is important to develop effective teaching methods for the relationship between species’ traits and ecological responses. I describe a short (approximately 45 minutes) activity that encourages youth to critically evaluate species’ traits in the context of predicted responses to modern climate change. The activity uses trading cards for local butterfly species akin to sports trading cards, with photographs of the species on the front and their trait statistics on the back. Participants are asked to make trait-based predictions of species’ responses to climate change. I describe my experience leading this activity with a youth naturalist club, and provide supplementary files allowing readers to modify this activity for other taxa, traits, and ecological responses. …

The Journal’s the Thing: Teaching Natural History and Nature Writing in Baja California Sur by John S. Farnsworth and Christopher D. Beatty (volume 6, 2012)

The skills of making informed observations, synthesizing those observations, and communicating them effectively are central to the naturalist. Developing university courses that optimize instruction in these skills simultaneously can, however, be a challenge. Here we describe a program at Santa Clara University comprised of two integrated co-requisite courses, Writing Natural History (ENVS 142) and The Natural History of Baja (BIOL/ENVS 144). Lectures through the 10-week winter quarter expand students’ knowledge of the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Baja Peninsula and help them to develop descriptive writing skills. The courses culminate in a ten-day expedition to the Baja Peninsula and Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez, where students explore local ecosystems and journal about their experiences. The result is a program in which students expand their skills in natural history and develop their own voices as writers and natural historians. We describe the structure and philosophy of this program and provide details on associated lecture topics, logistics, exercises, and readings. …

Toward Transformative Natural History Education: A Few Principles by Thomas L. Fleischner, Tom Wessels, R. Edward Grumbine, and Saul Weisberg (volume 7, 2013)

Four long-term teachers of field natural history discovered that their insights on critical aspects of success in natural history education were convergent. Here, they share nine principles related to pedagogy, management of group dynamics, and the fostering of emotional receptivity to learning. The authors suggest that these principles are applicable to a wide variety of age groups and program lengths. …

The Aesthetic Roots of Natural History by Gordon Orians (volume 7, 2013)

The first song of a male Red-winged Blackbird in late winter reminds me of the many hours I have spent among these birds studying their social lives and trying to discover the meanings of their alarm and contact calls and songs. What messages were the males communicating, to whom were they signaling, how did other individuals respond to the messages, and how did their responses influence their success? Those hours were among the happiest of my life, but why was what superficially might appear to be a rather boring task so pleasurable? The answer lies in the distant past. …

What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us by Anthony Lorsbach and Jerry Jinks (volume 7, 2013)

Students are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, a phenomenon labeled “nature-deficit disorder” or “ecophobia.” Some relate the problem to overly conceptual science curricula and argue for science programs to be based, in part, upon local natural history. Such a curriculum, called nature study, was developed at the beginning of the 20th century for similar reasons. Nature study developed in response to the industrialization of American society and became the foundation for science teaching in elementary schools. Nature study proponents believed nature could be studied locally to discover scientific truths, develop within children affection for nature, bring joy to children growing up in an industrialized world, and develop a sense of conservation. Early 20th century nature study educators provide arguments for the study of natural history that sound remarkably contemporary and provide pedagogical practices that can be scrutinized and adapted to the needs of today’s classrooms. …

Field School by Lyn Baldwin (volume 7, 2013)

This article uses the form of a creative non-fiction essay to illustrate that the teaching of an ecology field school can be informed by lessons learned from natural history. Throughout the essay, I use migration as a lens through which to interpret the teaching opportunities and challenges that occur in a two-week, capstone field course provided every two years at my university’s research station. Just as shorebirds refuel and rest at migratory staging areas, field school has its own educational waypoints that mark the progress of both individuals and the larger group. As a unique way of knowing that allows university students to attend to the natural world, this story argues that field schools make an important contribution to biology students’ undergraduate education and are worth preserving. …

Field-based and hands-on ecology labs increase undergraduate interest in the natural world by J. Resasco (volume 7, 2013)

Courses with field components and emphasis on natural history have been fading from college curricula. Interest among young people in observing the natural world has also widely been observed to be declining. Here, I measured whether participation in a college-level general ecology lab (with hands-on and field-based labs) increases student interest in natural history. I created a scoring system to assess students’ interest in natural history (“naturalist score”), and students used this system in self-evaluation before and after completing the course. During the semester, students participated in labs rooted in ecological theory and natural history including two field-based labs, one experiment using live plants and animals, and independent projects on topics of their choice. Naturalist scores increased significantly post-course. This pattern was apparent in students across a wide range of career interests. …

Organizing a Natural History Gathering: inspiration from the Northeast Warblers and Wildflowers Weekend by Audrey D. Clark & David S. Gilligan (volume 7, 2013)

The first annual Northeast Natural History Gathering was held in Craftsbury, Vermont, May 17-19, 2013. The gathering was the second such event organized in relationship with the Natural History Network. Our planning was guided by the philosophy that natural history at its best is an interdisciplinary, egalitarian practice that connects us with others and with the stories in our neighborhood. Forty-five people attended the gathering at a local summer camp, which provided food and lodging for overnight attendees. Participants chose from among eight three-hour field walks led by local and regional naturalists. At the end of the gathering, attendees said they felt “invigorated,” “renewed,” and “nourished.” We wrote this article to encourage others to organize gatherings in their own regions and to guide them through the process. …

Natural History of Spain: Teaching Students About Nature and Culture in a Foreign Country by Gorka Sancho & Deborah A. Bidwell (volume 8, 2014)

An ideal liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education in the 21st century should expose students to the natural world as well as to different human cultures. Unique to the College of Charleston’s semester abroad program in Spain, our Natural History of Spain course is designed to provide students with both immersion in natural history, as well as simultaneous immersion in foreign language and culture. Lengthy field excursions focus on basic nature observation and field annotation skills, exposing students to the unique flora and fauna of Spain across multiple ecosystems. An integrative approach comparing and contrasting environmental, cultural, and rural land use issues in Spain and the United States promotes conservation and emphasizes critical thinking skills. During semester-long offerings, Spanish language coursework and cultural immersion through lodging with host families rounds out the interdisciplinary course of study. Our approach allows for an in-depth and truly internationalized perspective, resulting in an integrative immersion in Spanish nature and culture that is grounded in time and place. Students responses highlight the importance of field trips and extended time spent immersed in natural settings as essential to their learning and overall experience. One hundred percent of students rated their international experience positively. …

Natural History in the Digital Age? by Jenny Rock (volume 8, 2014)

I teethed on chalk. I think primary thoughts through pencil on yellow lined paper. But my professional life has been negotiated via keyboard. Half my life is pre-computer, half is post; at 43 I straddle the boundary between two worlds. Yet with the ever-increasing growth of digital technology, more and more of us live in an increasingly virtual world. Some will argue that this technology has great scope for facilitating engagement and learning on many levels. However, a clear negative effect can be seen by society’s growing disengagement with nature (Pyle 2003). …

An Invitation for Engagement: Assigning and Assessing Field Notes to Promote Deeper Levels of Observation by John S. Farnsworth, Lyn Baldwin, and Michelle Bezanson  (volume 8, 2014)

This paper explores current practices for teaching the discipline of keeping field notes within academic natural history courses. We investigate how journal projects can be structured to promote engagement with the natural world while emphasizing the importance of recording accurate and honest observations. Particular attention is paid herein to the assignment of field notes, and to the process of assessing the results of these assignments. Our discussion includes results from an informal survey of best practices among colleagues representing numerous natural history disciplines. …

9. Georg Wilhelm Steller’s Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 by Marcel Robischon (volume 8, 2014)

Dr. Steller was, for the most, not exactly a happy man, and in the last years of his short life he may at times have bitterly regretted having accepted Captain Bering’s offer to join his crew. The second Kamchatkan expedition of 1741 was the most expensive and most expansive scientific undertaking of the time, aiming at no less than connecting the Russian-controlled Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka with the American continent, and within this project Georg Wilhelm Steller was promised “every possible opportunity to achieve something worthwhile.” …

All material copyright © 2016
The Natural History Network
Site credits