Voices of Hope in a Rapidly Changing World

Authors


On 16 November 2007 the Ecological Society of America's Strategies for Ecology Education, Development and Sustainability (SEEDS) became the 2006 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Three months later, at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, we, 35 SEEDS students and alumni leaders from across the United States, met to further immerse ourselves in a program unique in its ability to stimulate minds while encouraging multicultural perspectives. The latter is perhaps what enables us to take effective approaches to understanding new concepts in ecology, as well as to address the need to develop new education, outreach, and peer communication initiatives. We present a vision of optimism in a plan to maintain a framework of support unbound by cultural, social, and geographic barriers, and built on a strong foundation—the SEEDS program.

As aspiring ecologists, we seek to promote views of nature that incorporate human influences within ecological processes. We aim to link our research with education, as much as we understand the relevance in linking fragmented landscapes to reduce losses in biodiversity and ecosystem function. This year's gathering of SEEDS leaders was a promising start to addressing such challenges on a multinational scale, with students representing biomes from around the world.

Traditionally, the concept of biomes has been centered on classifying ecosystems primarily on climate and dominant vegetation types, but the cumulative effects of thousands of years of human land use patterns are now evident at higher spatial scales (i.e., biomes) (Ellis and Ramunkutty 2008). Human land use is driven by various socio-political, economic, and cultural factors that can be classified in terms of their characteristic ecological interactions. These include nutrient use and inputs, energy cycling, and physical disturbance regimes that both influence and respond to factors that have been traditionally used to define biomes (Ellis and Ramunkutty 2008). This behooves us to consider largescale classification schemes that integrate human activity within global landscapes. In spite of some disagreement amongst ecologists over terms that seek to more accurately describe some of the planet's biomes, such as anthropogenic biomes or anthromes, there is a need to illustrate this perspective to the general public. Such approaches to ecological classification do not imply the formation of a new subfield, but an increasingly holistic perspective to define ecosystems (Ellis and Ramunkutty 2008).

The development of new technologies and a wealth of research focusing on anthropogenic effects have enabled ecologists to challenge traditional views that support the perceived dualism between humans and nature. No longer should we project nature as existing in a separate realm, only visited to escape the stresses of our urban landscapes. This approach to understanding nature places us on the outside looking in, a common misconception that is, unfortunately, prevalent amongst the general public and to a lesser extent in conventional ecological research. Our everyday actions are embedded within large human-dominated landscape matrices, interspersed with diminishing natural patches. Moreover, our level of interaction in all the world's biomes suggests that human processes are significant drivers affecting the function, organization, and composition of many ecosystems (Turner et al. 1990, Vitousek 1994, Foley et al. 2005, Kareiva et al. 2007, Ellis and Ramunkutty 2008).

As the degree of human influence on the biosphere increases, the need for ecologists to recognize anthropogenic interactions and integrate them into a modern definition of ecosystem structure and function also increases. This goes beyond the bounds of our research. We need to incorporate this broadened perspective into the manner in which ecology is taught and portrayed to younger generations in K–12 education, as well as the general public. As a community of scientists, we ought to be concerned with reaching out and disseminating our knowledge not only to foster a more informed and responsible society, but to strengthen ecology as a science.

Providing a venue for the exchange of such novel ideas is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the SEEDS program, in addition to empowering its students with the confidence to translate thought into action. For instance, the SEEDS Education and Outreach Initiative (SEOI), founded in 2006 by SEEDS research fellows, successfully directed ESA's first community outreach field trip during the 2007 Annual Meeting in San Jose, California. The purpose of the trip was to encourage the participation of San Jose area high school students and teachers in a restoration project taking place near their community. The SEOI presented this concept to the American Forest Foundation's Project Learning Tree in 2007, and has again secured financial support from this organization to conduct this year's activities. The successful completion of the 2007 field trip and special session provided the momentum to recruit yet another group of high school students to continue similar efforts at the 2008 ESA Annual Meeting in Milwaukee. A field trip during the 2008 Meeting is planned to take place along the proposed Milwaukee River Central Park Riparian Corridor, and will consist of a joint effort by ESA members and local citizens to collect data for an inventory of the native flora and fauna. The data collected during this event will be contributed to a proposed environmental management plan for the site. Ultimately, the purpose of such outings is to link three key elements: research, education, and community-based ecosystem pride.

The SEEDS network, supported by university chapters from across the country, provides the platform for the planning of student-led efforts such as the SEOI. The chapter network allows students to take action within their campuses, as well as the surrounding community. As the network expands, students have addressed the need to increase chapter collaboration and communication. Such improvement is necessary in order to work more effectively on academic, personal, and professional pursuits. As a result, we have put forth several ideas to spawn national- or regional-scale chapter projects.

Inspired by our experiences with Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations, we have begun discussing the possibility of establishing Long Term SEEDS Projects (LTSPs). We envision these as being ongoing comparative studies, organized and operated accordingly by SEEDS chapters. Central to the idea would be inter-chapter collaboration, and community outreach. For instance, the evaluation of a riparian restoration project in Clayton County, Georgia, currently undertaken by the Clayton State University SEEDS Chapter, could serve as a model for the development of LTSPs. As these students collect field data, they gain exposure and an enhanced understanding of ecological research in relation to human–terrestrial biomes interactions. This chapter project involves experienced SEEDS student leaders in the mentoring of rising undergraduates, while emphasizing community outreach and the dissemination of ecological knowledge. These principles earned the Clayton State Chapter a SEEDS Special Project Grant, as well as community recognition.

As a result of our participation in chapter activities, we have come to value effective communication and creative peer interactions. To this effect, we propose ideas such as the planning of an Annual Chapter Conference as a means to reinforce the bonds that SEEDS students have come to rely on, and foster the development of new professional and personal contacts. Furthermore, we have given consideration to the creation of a journal to provide students a medium to publish research, education, and outreach communications. We hope for the successful development of these ideas, and continue to present new ones as we stride to integrate SEEDS chapter collaboration.

The multi-faceted nature of the SEEDS program inspires us to take on leadership roles that provide encouragement to other students. Though the program is primarily geared toward undergraduates, alumni, some of whom have completed or are currently seeking doctoral degrees, continue their participation. Consequently, an Alumni Committee was formed in an attempt to coordinate the activities of students who participated in the SEEDS program as undergraduates. The group functions as an umbrella that encompasses and engages all program participants in an effort to maintain and expand the SEEDS support framework. The committee, in conjunction with the ESA Office of Education and Diversity Programs, plans to assist in the maintenance of an alumni database, the creation of a SEEDS web site “Alumni Corner” section and discussion board, as well as visits to SEEDS chapters. The committee wishes to concentrate on topics such as graduate school rewards and challenges, career planning, parenting, and ethnic perspectives in relation to ecology. It should be mentioned that the Alumni Committee's chief objective is to act as a source of leadership support to SEEDS students. In this regard, the alumni plan to offer guidance by organizing special sessions or workshops at professional conferences such as the ESA Annual Meeting, in addition to providing assistance to ESA staff in administrative and events logistics planning. Alumni have embraced the role of mentors as they contribute to a remarkable student support network that ensures the success of its members beyond the undergraduate years. By reaching out to undergraduates and serving as an important peer resource, the committee is in effect addressing challenges related to academic and professional development.

The dynamic atmosphere created by SEEDS participants is one of the primary contributors to the program's success since its inception a little more than a decade ago. We are continually engaged and challenged, and even more importantly, have the opportunity to directly affect the means by which the program operates. This system of feedback is very empowering as it creates a genuine sense of community and inclusiveness. For instance, this year's SEEDS Leadership Conference in Duke University served as the catalyst for a bright group of diverse minds to blossom. Naturally, our wealth of perspectives and knowledge provides us with the confidence to approach emerging issues in ecology. We understand the context of our world and appreciate the complex nature of its ecosystems, many of which have a long history of anthropogenic impacts. Therefore, we see it necessary to bridge science and education in order to promote an improved understanding of ecology, and consequently, awareness of our actions as a major driver of global climate change. We see this comprehensive approach as critical in ensuring a sustainable relationship with the biosphere. Moreover, the broadening of ecological education is crucial to the future of science as a collective effort from all members of society, which is necessary to address impending challenges. The talents and experiences gained as a result of our involvement with the SEEDS program will surely enable us to make great contributions to science, education, and our world.

Figure 1.

Participants of the 21–24 February 2008 SEEDS Leadership Meeting pose with ESA President Norm Christensen (center) at Duke Forest, Durham, North Carolina.

Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge Melissa Armstrong, Erin Vinson, and Teresa Mourad for their advice on writing this commentary, Jui Shrestha for her logistical support, and Norm Christensen, ESA President and host of the 2008 SEEDS Leadership meeting at Duke University.

Contributors

Joel Abraham, Alexa Azure, Noemi Baquera, Becky Begay, Annette Cardona, Colleen Cooley, Jerriel Hall, Sheena Hillstrom, Kyle Hobson, Charzy Jones, Zakiya Leggett, Micki Lindeman, Kellen Marshall, Kenya McNear, Brittany Miles, Lorna Moreno, Cynthia Opurum, Ana Elisa Perez, Sarah Renteria, Belen Rosado, Colibri Sanfiorenzo, Abdul Siddique, Anne Stahley, Ku'ulei Vickery, Jorge Ramos, Jeramie Strickland.

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