Interdisciplinary teaching, research experience,
and active, collaborative strategies have all been identified as
practices highly favorable to the learning process. By using the
university campus as the focus for the study of the entire watershed
within which it is situated, the Campus Ecosystem Model presents a
context for incorporating these pedagogical elements into a useful
framework for undergraduate science education.
One of the exciting and distinguishing characteristics of Florida Gulf
Coast University (FGCU), which first opened its doors in the fall of
1997, is its embrace of curricular innovation and interdisciplinary
learning. To help direct this effort, the university has identified
specific learning goals for its students: aesthetic sensibility,
community awareness and involvement, culturally diverse perspective,
ecological perspective, effective communication, ethical responsibility,
information literacy, problem-solving abilities, and technological
literacy. These goals are essential building blocks that, once
assembled, improve student performance in a range of academic, personal,
and professional endeavors.
Against this backdrop we are developing in the College of Arts and
Sciences a model for undergraduate education whereby the FGCU campus
serves as a focus for the study of the entire watershed within which it
is situated, from its freshwater origins downstream to the Gulf of
Mexico. The Campus Ecosystem Model (CEM) is an interdisciplinary
heuristic that directly supports the development and practice of the
ecological perspective learning goal. Moreover, the model can be used to
incorporate other university learning goals into the curriculum. As
such, it provides FGCU with a valuable tool for accomplishing its
The Campus Ecosystem Model
The Campus Ecosystem Model draws attention to the exchange of
information between organisms and their environment, to the tracking of
matter and energy through the campus ecosystem, and to the linkages that
exist between the campus and other ecosystems via the import and export
of these properties. The model builds upon previously developed and
tested pedagogical practices that connect the learner directly to an
ecosystem. These methods include bringing ecology into the classroom
through the use of microcosms (e.g., Allard 1994, Marcus 1994) and using
the schoolyard as an extension of the science classroom (e.g., Grimes
1995, Allard 1996). The CEM increases the scale and significance of this
approach by emphasizing that the university itself is situated within an
ecosystem and is both influenced by and influences this system.
Rather than viewing the campus merely as a setting in which education
takes place, the model presents the campus as a common text to be
studied by both science majors and nonmajors. A deliberate linking of
the curriculum to tangible environmental issues within the students’
own backyard provides a genuine foundation in the discipline and
reinforces basic principles and problem-solving techniques. This is
particularly beneficial for nonscience majors, who may have developed
fears or misconceptions about science earlier in their education
(Cronin-Jones 1991). The model not only affords students hands-on,
real-world experience in the discipline of their choosing, but also
integrates discipline-based frameworks by linking multiple courses. Such
interdisciplinary approaches, emphasizing research experience as well as
active, collaborative learning, have been endorsed by both science
educators (Massey 1989; Uno 1990; Kyle et al. 1991; Barr and Tagg 1995;
Watson 1999) and national science organizations (NSF 1996; NRC 1997).
One of the ways in which the Campus Ecosystem Model is being applied at
FGCU is to connect learners within individual classes through the use of
collaborative research projects that focus on the campus or adjacent
ecosystems. Ecosystems are complex and their study is often best
accomplished collaboratively. Real collaboration requires students to be
actively involved in the learning process, and as a result provides a
greater capacity and potential for learning (Gabelnick et al. 1990;
MacGregor 1990). The CEM therefore encourages students to work together
to examine specific aspects of ecosystem form and function. This group
work not only promotes problem solving, as students with diverse
backgrounds work toward a common goal, but also provides an opportunity
for experiential learning, which is especially valuable in science
By minimizing the distance between the classroom and the field, both the
level of required support and the potential for logistical problems are
reduced. Moreover, the depth and significance of student projects can be
enhanced when they are embedded within a larger, longer-term context. By
focusing research on the campus and its surrounding environment,
students further develop a sense of place and a sense of belonging to
the campus community. Coupled with the changes in environmental values
that derive from direct learning experiences in the field (Bogner 1998;
Manzanal et al. 1999), this approach can lead to environmental
stewardship and increased ethical responsibility.
Example 1: Collegium of Integrated Learning
In the College of Arts and Sciences, we define ecological perspective as
“an analytic approach derived from the study of the natural
environment and applied to enhance understanding of various natural and
socially derived structures and phenomena.” Although cultivated in a
number of courses and programs in the natural sciences, this learning
goal is assessed college-wide in Issues in Ecology and Environment (IDS
3304), a course in the Collegium of Integrated Learning. The Collegium
is a core of courses within the college designed to sustain the
interdisciplinary spirit throughout the undergraduate experience in the
face of ever increasing specialization.
In Issues in Ecology and Environment, the ecological perspective is used
to derive a number of student learning outcomes from which course
assessments are constructed. In one of these assessments, student teams
focus on specific ecosystems on campus (e.g., cypress swamps, pine
flatwoods, hardwood hammocks, lakes, freshwater marshes) (fig. 1) to
develop a common vocabulary and conceptual base for exploring ecology
and environment (McDonald and Tolley in review). Students define the
boundary of their ecosystem and identify key components that enter or
exit the system (e.g., sunlight, water, nutrients). They then record
their own observations of the types and distributions of plants and
animals found in their ecosystem, the behaviors of individual organisms,
and the various interactions that occur within and between the living
and nonliving components of the system. Teams are further encouraged to
revisit their ecosystems often to investigate whether or not they change
noticeably over time.
After working together as part of a group to identify the components and
structure of each ecosystem and the interactions that occur within it,
individual students then compare and contrast their ecosystem with
similar systems found in southwest Florida. Analysis is demonstrated
both by finding parallel evidence that relates a campus ecosystem to
similar systems described in the literature and by sorting and
assembling observations and retrieved information in a manner that
enables the student to infer meaning about how his or her particular
Example 2: Earth Systems Science
The FGCU campus contains a number of both natural and created aquatic
and wetland ecosystems (fig. 1). During the fall of 1999, students in
Limnology (PCB 4303C) were asked to develop a series of questions meant
to enhance their understanding of one of these systems. These questions
would serve as the basis for a student-driven, collaborative research
project: (1) Are there day/night differences in phytoplankton biomass?
(2) Is variation in phytoplankton biomass related to measured
differences in water quality? (3) What is the nature of the vertical
distribution of phytoplankton biomass?
Figure 1. Map of the FGCU campus
and selected ecosystems.
The campus represents the upper portion
of the watershed and the focal point of the Campus Ecosystem
To address these research questions, students used an in vivo
fluorometer to estimate phytoplankton standing crop (biomass) on one of
the campus lakes, using chlorophyll concentration as a proxy.
Chlorophyll a and various water quality parameters were measured at 1-m
depth increments at three stations on the lake. Data were collected both
during the day and at night on three separate dates. After conducting
these field measurements, students broke into teams and began examining
the data. Each team analyzed the data statistically and graphically
based on one of the above questions; each student was then responsible
for producing and submitting an individual final report. On the final
day of class, each team presented the products of its work (e.g., fig.
2) after which the entire class began making connections among the data
sets and began synthesizing the results.
Figure 2. Example of student
research using the Campus Ecosystem Model.
Chlorophyll a concentration was
determined at depth for three stations on one of the campus lakes.
Note the difference in the vertical distribution of chlorophyll a
between day (8:30–10:30 A.M.)
and night (8:30–10:30 P.M.).
Connecting the Curriculum
Using the Campus Ecosystem Model to connect the curriculum within the
College of Arts and Sciences involves the deliberate collaboration by
faculty in order to learn about each other’s courses and how they
might be integrated. It is only through such interdisciplinary
conversations that potential connections can be identified. For example,
one effective way to link courses is to use the output of one course as
the input for another, either through direct collaboration or an
exchange of data.
The centering of education and research around the campus promotes
coordination and collaboration among the faculty through the use of both
shared resources and connected learning outcomes. This collaboration
promotes professional growth by encouraging faculty to venture beyond
their own disciplinary boundaries, picking up additional knowledge and
skills in the process. Scholarship benefits as individual faculty
assemble a wide range of conceptual models and research tools for use in
a more interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. Furthermore, the
development of a core of resources and facilities that supports several
disciplines simultaneously provides a cost-effective means for the
university to sustain learning-through-research, and it promotes
cooperation rather than competition among faculty in securing external
The following examples illustrate how the CEM is being used to make
connections across the curriculum at FGCU. Each involves the use of
collaborative research projects that focus on the campus or adjacent
ecosystems and each deliberately links students and faculty from
different courses. In many cases, the courses thus linked represent not
only separate disciplines but also separate academic programs within the
College of Arts and Sciences.
Example 1: Interdisciplinary Social Sciences and Environmental
Located on the FGCU campus are textbook examples of hardwood hammocks.
These unique habitats, sometimes referred to as tree islands, occur
across the south Florida landscape and have been utilized by humans
since prehistory. An archaeological site reflecting this relationship is
fortuitously located in one of the on-campus hammocks. To incorporate
the investigation of this site into the curriculum, Introduction to
Archaeology (ANT 2100) and Ecosystem Monitoring and Research Methods
(PCB 3460C) are offered concurrently and are linked via collaborative
fieldwork. During three field sessions led by faculty from both courses,
mixed teams of students conducted a general vegetative survey,
identifying and mapping major tree species within each grid, measuring
tree diameter at breast height, examining forest canopy structure using
densiometers, and coring selected tree species to estimate age. Student
teams also measured and mapped elevation and soil moisture content.
Using a common data set, students from each course focus on a particular
aspect of the habitation site and are assessed accordingly via
course-specific instruments. Those enrolled in ecology examine the
spatial characteristics of the ecosystem and how these characteristics
respond to changes in elevation, especially with respect to water level.
This group also explores temporal variation in vegetative structure to
identify successional changes associated with ecosystem disturbance.
Archaeology sophomores examine the site from the perspective of deeper
time, considering not only the environmental characteristics that might
determine the suitability of the site for human occupation, but also how
this particular ecosystem may have changed in response to human
Regardless of disciplinary perspective, each class benefited from the
increased project scope that is possible with a large number of
collaborators, from the student-to-student mentoring that occurs when
learners of different disciplines and experience levels interact, and
from a more holistic examination of the ecosystem. Furthermore, the
incorporation of an archaeology course into the CEM not only provides
additional perspectives on this human-environment relationship but also
adds a temporal component extending well beyond the range of typical
Example 2: Earth Systems Science and General Education Programs
Global Systems (ISC 3145C) is a junior-level, interdisciplinary course
that serves as an introduction to the Earth systems science program.
Students in Global Systems design and implement collaborative research
projects that relate to various aspects of FGCU’s watershed. The
instructor poses questions at the beginning of the semester and then
introduces relevant content to ensure that students acquire foundational
knowledge in each of the project areas. Students working together in
teams further define these research projects by developing experimental
designs. The entire class then collects and analyzes data for all of the
projects, with each team serving as the principal investigator for one
of the projects. As part of the assessment process, student teams create
and present project posters and individual students submit independent
These results are also shared with students in Marine Systems (OCE
1001C), one of the natural science electives in the general education
curriculum. This course introduces undergraduates throughout the
university to the interdisciplinary field of oceanography and, more
generally, to the basic concepts and principles of science and the
scientific process. A significant component of the coursework is
laboratory- and field-based, requiring students to work together to
collect and analyze data from various marine environments.
Although the course-specific learning outcomes are different, Marine
Systems and Global Systems have a common focus on the impacts the ocean
has on the shape of Florida’s coastline. To conduct their
investigations, students in both courses visit the same location on one
of the local barrier islands. These islands represent the downstream
extent of FGCU’s watershed and therefore the coastal component of the
By collecting and analyzing sediments from the island’s beaches and
back bays, Marine Systems students examine the relationship between
water energy and sediment transport, an important relationship
responsible for sculpting our shorelines. These students also determine
the shape of the beach face itself using basic surveying instruments
(e.g., sight level, stadium, compass) to record changes in elevation.
The resulting profiles enable students to evaluate short-term changes in
local patterns of erosion and deposition that track seasonal changes in
Students in Global Systems focus on the longer-term issue of sea level
rise and its impact upon coastal systems. Using data available online
from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.opsd.nos.noaa.gov/data_res.html)
the students assigned to this project estimate the overall rate of
change from monthly mean sea level heights taken from a number of
coastal cities in Florida over the last century. To investigate the
potential impact to southwest Florida, the team then examines temporal
shifts in coastal vegetation and temporal changes in patterns of
estuarine sedimentation and in the geomorphology of barrier islands
(Sheppard et al. 1999; Obley et al. 2000).
Beach profile data collected at one time of the year in Global Systems
is combined with that collected at another time of year in Marine
Systems so that students in the latter course can infer seasonal changes
in local beach erosion and beach deposition. Together, these two courses
engage students in environmental stewardship, help to create an evolving
database of the watershed, and further our understanding of regional
The Campus Ecosystem Model promotes the temporal and spatial integration
of local ecological and environmental information. By focusing on
specific ecosystems associated with Florida Gulf Coast University,
individual course sections lay the foundation upon which subsequent
course offerings build. This interaction, with the output of one course
or section serving as the input of another, creates a feedback mechanism
that helps regulate the curriculum. As a result, students interact with
one another across time in a very real way, contributing to an evolving
information base and ultimately, an evolving curriculum.
Over time, the cumulative effect of the model is the development of an
environmental history—a history that details the FGCU campus
environment and its ecological functions, that examines its role in the
human-environment relationship, and that assesses its impact on
southwest Florida. The use of the Campus Ecosystem Model therefore links
the university-learning community in a meaningful way to both the local
community and the larger geographic region that it serves.
Although the formal evaluation of the model’s success has yet to be
implemented, initial student feedback has been mostly positive.
Anonymous comments culled from course evaluation sheets used in Issues
in Ecology and Environment reflect student attitudes toward one of two
assessments that incorporate the CEM:
When we had a chance to get out in the environment, I thought that
this was very Dewian and I believe that much is learned through
experience. The more experiences you as instructors can give students
(specifically as it applies to the environment) the better...
The first assessment really allowed us to get familiar with our
environment. Working in groups allowed teamwork and communication. This
assessment made it hands on and fun.
The final assessment worked well because it took a real issue and made
us think, learn, and perhaps educate one another on a specific
These responses suggest that students also place value on experiential
learning that is centered on real issues and situated within a familiar
context—all key considerations that were used to construct the model
in the first place.
With approximately 760 acres of diverse habitats situated in a rural
setting in southwest Florida, the development of such a model at Florida
Gulf Coast University is not surprising. The use of the campus as a
focus for ecosystem study is therefore as much a product of geography as
of pedagogy; however, all colleges and universities are situated within
ecosystems. These campus ecosystems differ from one another, both in
terms of natural form and function and in the relative degree of human
influence. Since the Campus Ecosystem Model is independent of ecosystem
type and quality, all colleges and universities have the potential to
benefit from its use. The model will continue to be a valuable tool for
FGCU in the future, even as the campus ecosystem continues to change in
response to university growth and the increasing urbanization of
S. Gregory Tolley is an associate
professor of marine science, Edwin Everham is an associate
professor of environmental studies, Michael McDonald is an
assistant professor of anthropology, and Mike Savarese is an
associate professor of Earth systems science, Florida Gulf Coast
University, 10501 FGCU Boulevard South, Fort Myers, FL 33965-6565;
The authors would like to thank Joseph Kakareka for assembling a core of
analytical capabilities that could be used to integrate courses; Rhonda
Holtzclaw, Mary Newman, Michael Lucas, and Aixa Chaves-Nieves for their
assistance in the laboratory and Sharon Thurston for her work in the
field; Rebecca Totaro and Aswani Volety for their valuable comments and
careful reviews of the manuscript; and Jack Crocker and Donna Price
Henry for their support of team-teaching and flexibility in course
The Campus Ecosystem Model is partially supported by the National
Science Foundation (NSF-DUE 9850743) and by the United States Department
of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
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