Biodiversity Technology in the Classroom


Wilson, E. O. & D. L. Perlman Conserving Earth's Biodiversity. . 1999 . CD-ROM for Windows and MacOS with User's Guide. $39.95. ISBN 1-55963-773-0 . CD-ROM with User's Guide and Instructor's Manual. $39.95. ISBN 1–55963–774–9.

When I attended the presentation by E. O. Wilson and Dan L. Perlman of their CD-ROM Conserving Earth's Biodiversity, I immediately grasped its utility for my teaching situation. At the time, I was teaching environmental studies to undergraduates and wanted the students to learn conservation biology basics. Few of them had a serious interest in science, but all had an interest in protecting the environment. I intended to use the CD as bait to get them to bite the hook that would reel them into science. For the most part, this approach worked. Although there are still problems with applying technology in the classroom (e.g., hardware availability, teacher interest, student sophistication, and overexposure to technology), Wilson and Perlman's CD is a valuable introductory teaching tool. Compared to a printed text, it allows experimentation with mathematical models, and it has a pleasing environment, flexible graphics, and other benefits of software graphic interfaces. And, just like a text, it requires considerable teacher preparation.

The CD-ROM has eight major sections, focusing on global patterns of biodiversity, evolution, anthropogenic effects, conservation practice, and the social and economic context in which destruction and conservation occur. There are 15 world maps that can be compared side by side, illustrating aspects of global resource consumption. Video introductions can be skipped over by the literate, yet provide an easy learning opportunity for novices. Also, there are hundreds of web links to pre-screened sites and embedded study questions, although these may reach too far and teachers will probably want to create their own. Case studies, such as a description of contracts for ecosystem services in Costa Rica, are a break from explanatory text. Interactive programs on human population growth, deforestation rates, island biogeography, and demographic stochasticity allow students to manipulate variables. The virtual environment has recordings of tropical bird songs, background photos, and clearly stated options. Some of the introductory essays have introductory paragraphs that are too long. The instructor's manual is useful, although if you are an experienced teacher, experimentation will get you to the same place.

The philosophical underpinning of the CD is to “give students control over their own learning.” Without rigorous preparation and guidance by the instructor, students will do what they (we) always do: peruse it lightly and forget about it. In fact, in a mixed course of graduate and undergraduate students I gave students the option of using the CD; only one did so. In other words, interactive technology should not be considered a shortcut around preparation. The manual suggests running through preselected sections in class and integrating the embedded study questions with your syllabus. Good ideas.

The stated goal of the CD is a multilayered experience suited to different levels of knowledge. This is accomplished by engaging video and audio introductions to sections by none other than Professor E. O. Wilson. Further subject depth can be gained by reading an introductory essay and exploring suggested links that will lead the user to related sections of the CD. Bibliographies and pre-screened websites provide sources for further research.

This CD makes the point that conservation biology is a “highly interdisciplinary field,” and the goal of the program is to introduce a “broad range of topics.” It takes a bird's-eye view, delving into specifics when they illustrate the general case. The maps provide a compelling overview of the global scale of the conservation problem. By placing a map of human population density side by side with electricity consumption and centers of diversity, one can see that it really is the developed, resource-consuming nations that globally affect diversity. The map comparisons of land-use history on Cape Cod over four decades clearly illustrate the problem of sprawl. Likewise, graphics are used effectively to show the relative species abundance of animals, archaebacteria, protists, fungi, and plants.

One of the strongest selling points of this CD is that it provides an engaging look at one of the twentieth century's most influential scientists. A drawback, however, is that Wilson is most visible in the video introductions. Wilson's trademark in his popular writing—a wealth of natural-history minutia combined with head-spinning theory—is absent. However impractical, if the CD had email links to Wilson, his students, and colleagues, there would be unparalleled opportunity for students of all ages to actually interact with the science as it is changing. Unlike a textbook, a CD can provide up-to-date information and analyses by providing internet links. In short, this CD is designed for teachers, by a teacher. It is not a reference; instead, it is an effective outreach tool. Therefore, any biologist seeking a serious interactive experience may be amused, but not hugely challenged.

There are serious barriers to the use of this CD in schools. Do all teachers have the basic computing skills necessary to plug this thing in and hook it up to an LCD projector for use in a classroom? No. Do they have the requisite, expensive hardware? No. Therefore, those of us interested in teaching conservation biology in all levels and who think technology is a means to that end will have to become actively involved. Grants will have to be written, collaborations formed, classrooms visited, computer labs supplied, and complexities of conservation biology explained when the CD does not do it.