UW News

December 6, 2001

Urban ecology: Collaborative program prepares students for real world

News and Information

A group of UW faculty intent on changing the culture of graduate education has just received $2.7 million toward that effort.

“Our graduate students are getting jobs but the nature of problems facing the organizations they join is changing, growing in complexity. Being able to collaborate is the only way to be effective,” says Gordon Bradley, professor of forest resources and one leader of a 23-member group that received the multi-million dollar award from the National Science Foundation for “Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training” for UW doctoral students. It’s the third such award the UW has garnered.

This time the program, with the inelegant acronym “IGERT,” is furthering a graduate program in urban ecology that was launched at the UW three years ago and concerns some of the most challenging problems worldwide: how to manage growth so people have places to live and work while protecting the ecosystem.

“It’s unrealistic to think we can stop development,” says Marina Alberti, associate professor of urban design and planning. “There will be more people and we need to develop in ways that are sustainable.”

To even talk about what’s driving changes, and the following cascade of consequences, means students can no longer pursue advanced degrees in isolation. A student interested in birds that nest exclusively in tree snags having to talk with another student who focuses on urban economics and politics . . . well, it’s just like what they’ll face on the job.

To change graduate education from a traditional enterprise focused on an individual’s immersion in a discipline to one clearly emphasizing interdisciplinary teams, the urban ecology group is pursuing what it calls four novel approaches:

  • Interdisciplinary teaching means three, four or more faculty participate in every lecture and discussion group, rather than having individuals present material serially. John Marzluff, associate professor of forest resources and director of the IGERT program, says a recent meeting found six master’s students and five faculty around the table. He and four of his colleagues have participated in each class this quarter for the 35 graduate and undergraduate students in the upper division “Problem Analysis in Urban Ecology.”

  • Instead of starting graduate students off with a disciplinary focus, the program immerses them into real-world, interdisciplinary problem solving. The first group of master’s students, now in their second year, are striving to use satellite images to chart changes in land use between the mid-1970s and today. It’s being done for the King County Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state’s Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, which is responsible for administering the state’s Growth Management Act. Various associations and private groups have expressed keen interest in the results, Marzluff says.

  • Rather than a set course of instruction before students begin research, faculty help teams decide what they need as their analyses progress. This “just-in-time” education has, for example, thrust the master’s students into the thick of dealing with satellite imagery. They had to contend with 25 years of advances in technology that required special calibration to compare images taken in 1974 with those of today. They’ve also had to find the means to digitize images and figure out how best to manage huge amounts of data.

  • And, in perhaps the most radical approach, each student’s dissertation must include a common, co-authored section based on the team’s findings.

The core group behind the effort to effect these changes has been Marzluff, Alberti, Bradley, forest resources’s Clare Ryan, landscape architecture’s Kristina Hill and geography’s Craig ZumBrunnen. Nearly 20 others in areas ranging from public affairs to zoology are lending their support and expertise.

“I’ve been teaching for going on 30 years,” Bradley says. “This has been like starting all over again. My enthusiasm has been renewed.”

Various UW offices have helped the group: the Office of Research provided funding and help from Eric Shulenberger, a campus expert at assembling and funding interdisciplinary teams; the Office of Undergraduate Education is funding undergraduate participation; the Graduate School is providing funds to encourage minority participation; and the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education is monitoring the outcome.

Before the IGERT funding, the urban ecology graduate program received $300,000 from the UW’s Tools for Transformation program administered by Debra Friedman. It also was being nurtured by faculty incorporating improvements in graduate education under a number of research projects. A $1.2 million biocomplexity project for NSF, of which Alberti is the lead principal investigator, is just the most recent example.

The group says the key to obtaining the IGERT money this time – they were turned down twice before – was having a demonstration project that proved it was furthering the field of urban ecology and had true value for students.

“Our class is more student driven than traditional classes and we all agree this is one of the highlights,” wrote students as part of the IGERT proposal process. “We asked for lectures we thought were relevant to our issues. We led class discussions regarding papers that we found interesting. We ran the weekly schedules and more than once told the faculty we felt they were going in the wrong direction, and of course, we steered them back on track.”

So who’s running things anyway? Sometimes it’s hard even for faculty to tell, Alberti says.

“Students expect to find one best answer and instead they were getting five,” she said of the group’s initial attempts to teach with five of them in the room at a time. “At the extreme there were faculty saying the exact opposite of each other.”

The way has been smoothed by assigning faculty different tasks each session: one or two lead the lecture, another synthesizes what is presented, another does an “interdisciplinary moment” and another links the presentation to previous classes.

Then, too, the faculty had to improve their ability to communicate with each other, even hiring a consultant to guide them. And this was for a core group meeting nearly every week since Alberti and Marzluff launched the collaborative effort five years ago, a group that had long considered itself a strong team. It could be that other groups attempting interdisciplinary teaching will need the UW’s help to access the sophisticated group-process people that they need, Alberti says.

Two other key challenges have been incorporating policy with science, and meshing problem-solving approaches that differ from discipline to discipline. Alberti says you must learn “simultaneous thinking” to design solutions that address multiple problems in our metropolitan areas.

Other campus units shouldn’t let money become a stumbling block, the group urges. Whether it’s a bootstrap effort or drawing funding from some other sources, you need to get a good demonstration, a pilot of a year or two, Bradley says. “That’s what grant reviewers with programs such as IGERT want to see.”