Mysteries of Migration: Consequences for Conservation Policies

Thomas C. (Tom) Wood, Assistant Professor, and Elizabeth M. (Betsy) Gunn, Associate Professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Abstract

Mysteries of Migration is a learning community focused on the observation and investigation of the phenomenon of migration in different species. While scientists no longer believe that birds bury themselves in the mud until spring, there are still many unsolved mysteries surrounding migration, such as how monarch butterflies find their way to their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico despite never having been there before, or why large groups of hammerhead sharks still converge in the Galapagos Islands.

The course is team taught by a conservation biologist and a public policy specialist. The scientific content of the course focuses on the basic biological and physical factors that influence migration – such as energy metabolism, behavioral adaptations, population genetics, terrain, weather patterns, and magnetism. The policy questions explored include the implications of migration for the development of conservation and resource management policies, both within the United States and with other nations, the role of government and non-governmental actors and institutions in addressing migratory issues, and the advantages and disadvantages of the various political and policy tools we use to deal with migration. The goal of the course is two-fold: to provide students with a solid understanding of basic biological principles by studying their application to one of the most pervasive and interesting phenomena in nature, and to learn about and evaluate the domestic and international policy systems for addressing problems emerging from the movement of plants and animals.

Course activities include seminar discussions of readings and presentations, overnight field trips to observe migration, journal and portfolio development, data collection, the development and implementation of an individual research project, and the completion of a group case study of a public policy issue involving migration. Mysteries of Migration incorporates several innovative pedagogies into its framework, including team teaching, experiential learning (field trips), peer evaluation, group work, and portfolio assessment strategies.

Learning Goals

This learning community will investigate the exciting and, in some cases, mysterious phenomenon of migration-from butterflies to polar bears. In the past, scientists thought birds flew to the moon or buried themselves in the mud until spring. Although we no longer believe these theories, mystery still surrounds some aspects of migration. Every year, monarch butterflies arrive at their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico even though none have ever been there before. And hammerhead sharks converge, for example, in the Galapagos in large groups for unknown reasons.

Our focus will be on the basic biological and physical factors that influence migration-such as energy metabolism, behavioral adaptations, population genetics, terrain, weather patterns, and magnetism-and the implications of migration for the development of conservation and resource management policies both within the United States and with other nations. Our primary goal is two-fold: (1) to provide students with a solid understanding of basic biological principles by studying their application to one of the most pervasive and interesting phenomena in nature, and (2) to learn about and evaluate the domestic and international policy systems and tools for addressing problems and issues raised by the movement of plants and animals. A secondary goal is to enhance the students awareness of the historical and cultural importance of migration through introducing a variety of readings, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Examples of questions to be investigated include: Why do organisms migrate? How do they know “where to go”? What factors affect the timing of migration? What problems does migration pose for resource management and conservation efforts, domestically and internationally? Are the institutions and mechanisms we currently depend on to protect migrating species effective?

Upon completion of the course, each member of the learning community should be able to:

  1. Describe the biological parameters associated with migration, including behavioral and physiological components, and discuss their significance when developing conservation policy.
  2. Provide several examples of important migratory issues and assess the effectiveness of our public policy system in addressing scientific uncertainties and value conflicts associated with each issue.
  3. Discuss the roles of the major governmental and non-governmental actors and institutions responsible for handling migratory issues in local, state, national and international arenas.
  4. List the major policy tools available for dealing with migration issues, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and provide examples of their use.
  5. Demonstrate the capacity to synthesize and integrate key facts and ideas from the learning community through the quality of journal entries, analytical and reflective work on case studies, quizzes/exams, completion of the assessment portfolio, and active participation in field activities.

Linking Biology and Social Issues

How Mysteries of Migration Links Biology and Civic Issues

Our focus is on the basic biological and physical factors that influence migration-such as energy metabolism, behavioral adaptations, population genetics, terrain, weather patterns, and magnetism-and the implications of these factors for the development of conservation and resource management policies both within the United States and with other nations. Our primary goal is two-fold: (1) to provide students with a solid understanding of basic biological principles by studying their application to one of the most pervasive and interesting phenomena in nature, and (2) to learn about and evaluate the domestic and international policy systems and tools for addressing problems and issues raised by the movement of plants and animals. A secondary goal is to enhance the student’s awareness of the historical and cultural importance of migration through introducing a variety of readings, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Examples of questions to be investigated include: Why do organisms migrate? How do they know “where to go”? What factors affect the timing of migration? What problems does migration pose for resource management and conservation efforts, domestically and internationally? Are the institutions and mechanisms we currently depend on to protect migrating species effective? How can policy choices be improved?

Migratory organisms move without regard to political boundaries, thus establishing a compelling need to understand both domestic and international legal-institutional regimes. This interface between biological events and political mechanisms is made more complex by the need to understand theories and concepts from other disciplines such as meteorology, physics, etc. Doing interdisciplinary work, whether in a research or decision-making context, requires a commitment to learning by all involved. Thus, students are asked to consider extant or novel interdisciplinary learning processes or models for addressing important contemporary or longer-range public policy issues.

This course focuses on understanding the needs of migratory organisms in order to assess the effectiveness of current national and international policies in protecting a range of migratory species including birds, fish, marine mammals, insects and plants. For example, students have considered case studies ranging from pacific salmon migration to several organisms within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In order to understand the issues and develop effective policy options students must learn (1) concepts of regulatory and metabolic mechanisms and behavior, and (2) the legal-institutional and stakeholder interests involved.

Through experiential learning (e.g., field trips) and student selected case study topics, we involve students in applying classroom learning to specific locations, institutions, and species. For example, when students visit Cape May, NJ, they observe and analyze the effects of land use changes on migratory organisms. They meet officials and citizens in the associated NGOs and government agencies, assist with Monarch butterfly tagging, learn to identify raptors, passerines and waterfowl, and begin to build a model of how habitat areas function within both a local community and the broader conservation community. We model for students how they might scope out an issue of interest to them and develop a plan of action.

This course challenges students to identify and understand competing perspectives, ideas, and values. Students learn that, even though migratory strategies and life histories of many organisms are poorly understood, policy choices affecting these organisms will be made. This gives students an opportunity to consider the process for setting research and funding priorities and how they might influence this process. Students also learn that, even when migratory needs are well understood, agencies with multi-use mandates (e.g., the U.S. Forest Service) may consider scientific evidence as only one of many perspectives to be accommodated or may find that scientists disagree about the interpretation of data.

By developing an understanding of populations of migratory organisms, including concepts of fitness and reproductive strategies, students are able to frame scientific questions that can help identify responsible policy choices. We typically begin by considering a taxonomy of movement (Dingle 1996) and discuss how understanding an organism’s movement strategy could help a decision maker do a better job of constructing and choosing among policy options.

The entire learning community is problem driven. Throughout the semester, we challenge students through real world problems that do not have simple answers (e.g., low frequency sonar, dams, hunting, pollution). Students join us in developing the types of information needed to address these issues. In this way, students take responsibility for identifying appropriate information and constructing meaning in the context of the issue, rather than memorizing a pre-determined list of facts and concepts. We intend to prepare students for life-long learning, for using effectively their critical thinking skills about migratory issues after the course, and for using our approach as a model for addressing new or emerging issues.

To understand migration, students must draw on the larger natural history issues, including evolution, physiology, population dynamics and the scientific method. They learn to read and evaluate scientific literature and understand how to place that information into larger scientific parameters. The popular and scientific literatures on migratory birds, for example, are growing, giving students the chance to think about knowledge building and dissemination issues.

The Course

Course Syllabus

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Course Format

A learning community is comprised of a group of scholars (in this case, students and faculty), who come together to inquire, to investigate, and to construct knowledge about a topic of interest. We intend for this learning community to be characterized by openness and respect; collaboration; experiences linking the classroom to places, events and people outside the university setting; and group and individual learning. To meet these goals, students must be active, informed participants. All of us must read and thoroughly consider the reading assignments for each week before coming to class and take responsibility for making connections and sharing ideas.

Examples of activities:

The following types of activities will provide opportunities for students to achieve both course and personal learning objectives:

  • leading and participating in seminar discussions;
  • observing migration in the field (several weekend camping trips are scheduled);
  • keeping journals;
  • reading and critiquing scholarly books, journal articles, and other materials on migration, including perspectives from science, public policy, literature, and the arts;
  • using the library, Internet and other tools to elaborate and clarify classroom discussions, track migration reports, conduct research on international treaties, and gather data for projects;
  • preparing research materials and graphics for group and individual projects; and
  • taking quizzes over course materials and activities.

Pedagogical Methodologies:

As a learning community model, this course emphasizes active, collaborative learning through discovery-driven investigations, development of student competencies and skills, and experiential learning in the field. Throughout the course activities, students are responsible for evaluating their goals and their learning through multiple methods (see section below on pedagogies).

  • Course journal:

Each student must keep a journal throughout the course. We will have a workshop on journal writing and provide separate handouts describing in detail what and how to write in your journal.

  • Group case study project:

This capstone assignment for the course is to be a well-researched, professionally presented group case study of a public policy issue involving migration. This project will have several components – a preliminary research plan with annotated bibliography, a draft, and the revised/final project. See separate handout describing the requirements and grading for this assignment.

  • Course portfolio:

Each student will prepare a course portfolio, documenting his or her progress toward specific seminar learning goals and toward NCC competencies. The portfolio is your primary vehicle for analyzing and reflecting on the course, demonstrating the connections you make through this course, and setting future goals for yourself.

NCC Competencies and Portfolios:

This learning community provides at least one or more opportunities to improve in each of the following NCC competencies: critical thinking, problem-solving, effective citizenship, social interaction, communication, global perspective, valuing, and aesthetic response. Your course journals should reflect your own assessment of the progress you have made in each of these areas. You may also want to address other competencies in your portfolio. We will discuss portfolios briefly at the beginning of the course and provide a portfolio workshop toward the end of the course to assist you in developing your course portfolio. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the portfolio, please ask us.

Peer evaluation:

Students must complete an evaluation for each group member. Any student who does not complete the peer evaluation will forfeit his or her own peer evaluation points. Students will have an opportunity to help us design the peer evaluation form.

Evaluating Learning

Student Assessment

In addition to the non-traditional assignments mentioned in the Pedagogical Methodologies section, the following, traditional assessment strategies were used to evaluate student understanding of course material.

Individual research paper: Each student will complete an individual research paper on a topic related to his or her group project. This paper will be completed in three stages-a proposal, a preliminary draft, and a revised final paper. See separate handout describing the requirements and grading for this assignment. We will conduct a workshop to help you prepare the final paper.

Email accounts: You must have an active email account that you can check frequently for messages from us or from other students in the class. We will set up a email list or group email to facilitate exchange of information, including questions and further discussion about issues raised in class and by readings, to post notices of good information sites, or to provide information about optional field trips or upcoming community events and activities.

In-class quizzes: Throughout the semester, students will complete individual and group quizzes to check progress on mastering the major concepts and facts presented and on applying them to address important migration topics. These will usually be short answer questions, but may also include brief essay questions over any aspect of the course, from scholarly readings and lectures to learning in the field. You will be allowed to drop one quiz grade. However, if you miss a quiz, it will automatically constitute your “dropped” grade and no points will be recorded for additional missing quizzes.

Final exam: Students will be given comprehensive questions about the course to prepare as a final, take-home exam. Students are encouraged to discuss the questions with their peers and with faculty, but must formulate and write answers to the questions individually.

Course Assessment

Course evaluation: In order to help the instructors improve the quality of this learning community for the future, students must complete the NCC course evaluation (in addition to the GMU faculty/course evaluation). These evaluations will be handed to the NCC Office Manager who will ensure that they are not available to the instructors until after grades have been assigned. Any student who does not complete the NCC course evaluation will earn an Incomplete grade for the course.

Background and Context

Instructors

Elizabeth M. (Betsy) Gunn
Associate Professor
George Mason University
egunn@gmu.edu

Thomas C. (Tom) Wood
Assistant Professor
George Mason University
twood@gmu.edu
We are both members of the NCC faculty and co-teach the NCC course on the Natural History of the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Thomas C. Wood also teaches in the first-year learning community on The Natural World, and frequently teaches field biology at Andros Island, Bahamas. He is a conservation biologist who has studied reproductive physiology at the Smithsonian. Dr. Elizabeth M. Gunn also teaches in the first-year learning community on Self as Citizen. Before joining NCC, she was a senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and for the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, and on the faculty at the University of Oklahoma.

Related Resources

Outside resources:

Dingle, H. (1996). Migration: The biology of life on the move. New York: Oxford University Press.

Buck, S. J. (1996). Understanding environmental law and administration(2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Island Press.