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BIOL 450

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-Fall 2013-


Biology 450: It’s not just a class, it’s an adventure. If you like tromping through the forest, looking under rocks, musing about the "whys" of our existence, exploring personal power, reading great nature articles and figuring out the answers to interesting ecological questions, this course is for you.


Instructor: Dr. Erin Becker; 218 Mueller Lab;

Teaching Assistant: Chris Thawley; 508 Mueller Lab;


Office Hours: 

E. Becker: by appointment—just email to set up a time

C. Thawley: by appointment—just email to set up a time


Text: All course readings will be available online through Angel OR will be given to you in class.


Philosophy: Biology 450 is likely to be different from most classes you have taken at Penn State. We invite you to engage with all aspects of Ecology—human, plant, animal, social—through reflection, analysis, and action. Because we believe that people learn best when they are free to take an active role in the learning process, we have done everything we can think of to invite your full participation—camping trip, field studies, ecological meals, experimentation, reading discussions, provocative films…. Please know at the outset that this is not a course for the faint hearted. You will be invited take risks and to grow in new and unexpected ways. 



     After all is said and done, our goal is no less than this:  That each of us might think thoughts that we have never had the knowledge to think; that we might write what we have never had the wisdom to write; that we might say what we have never had the courage to say; and that we might feel what we have never had the awareness to feel… and, in so doing, that we come to experience ever-more fully what it means to be a human being.


Here is what you can expect from us:

1) We will be prepared for class. 

2) We will do our best to give you honest and constructive feedback on your work.  

3) We will be available to meet with you whenever the need arises.

4) We will challenge your assumptions while being enthusiastically open to your ideas and questions.

5) We will present you with a challenging and broad view of ecology.


Here is what we ask of you:

1) that you attend all class meetings and that you be punctual.

2) that you come to class with an open mind, well prepared, and ready to participate.

3) that you contribute to a group culture grounded in mutual respect and caring.

4) that you be willing to stretch, take risks, and unleash your natural curiosity.


Class Structure:  Our meeting place/times are: 

Tuesday    1:00-2:15 pm in 008 Life Sciences 

Thursday   1:25-5:30 pm in 115 Osmond 

Most Tuesdays we will be discussing readings and most Thursdays we will spend in the field. We will also have two weekend field trips on September 13-15 and October 26-27.


I. THE COURSE: Week by Week






1--What's an Education for?         D. Orr 

2--Stump Sitting L. Fergus

Class Meetings: 

8/27—Getting Started

        8/28—Field trip to Sunset Park

Assignments:  1) Make your course Journal (See guidelines, pg. 6 of this syllabus) and make your first journal entry describing your journal-making process (this entry goes in Section I of your journal); 2) Produce a 2-3 page hand-written reflection on Thursday’s class and also place this in Section I of your journal; 3) Offer reflections (150-word minimum) on EACH of this week’s 2 readings and place these in Section II of your journal. 

4) Finally, visit WALNUT SPRINGS PARK (directions will be given in class) with your assigned partner BEFORE next Tuesday and locate your assigned plant in several different locations within the park. Then, spend at least one hour making observations of your study plant. Do this individually (for first 30 minutes) and then jointly with your partner (second 30 minutes). Go slow…. Be patient…. Be prepared to be surprised! Take some additional time to make some sketches of what you are seeing (Note: the “Chernobyl” reading offers a rationale for sketching as a way of seeing into things).

Write down your individual observations and then your joint observations in Section I of your

Journal. Note: You should have at least 10 individual and 10 joint observations. Then, take an additional half hour to write down any questions that arise from your observations.

Afterwards, and before 9/5, make arrangements so that one of you spends two hours seeing what you can learn about your plant using Internet resources, while the other sees what he or she can learn about this plant by searching various ecological databases available through Penn State’s library. Make a copy or print of at least two JOURNAL ARTICLES that involve research on your assigned plant and share with your partner.




1--Damsel flies, aphids, acorn weevils, bark beetles D. Stokes

2--Chernobyl                 H. Raffles

3--Special Delivery                 R. Finch

        4--A Guide to Increased Creativity in Research C. Loehle

Class Meetings:

9/3—Discuss readings, role of creativity in science

9/5—Field trip to Walnut Springs Park—note: we will meet at park entrance at 1:40 PM

Assignments:  1) Place a 2-3 page reflection on Thursday’s class in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer 4 reflections (150-word minimum) on EACH of this week’s 4 readings and place in Section II of your JOURNAL. 3) Do the independent portion of generation a Natural History Project (NHP) question, and then meet with your NHP partner to narrow down your question before next Thursday.




1--A Windstorm in the Forest                 J. Muir

2--A Study in Stumps                 T. Wessels

3--Seeing Ourselves as Part of Earth’s Metabolism (Angel) C. Uhl



Class Meetings:

9/10—Discuss readings and prepare for Greenwood Furnace Camping Trip

9/12—No class; Appointments with Becker/Thawley to discuss NHP ideas

9/13-9/15—Greenwood Furnace State Park camping trip. Leave Friday at 4:30 PM; return

to campus, Sunday, 4:30 PM

Assignments: 1) Produce a hand-written reflection on this weekend’s camping trip (200-word minimum)

and place this in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer 3 reflections (150-word minimum) on EACH of

this week’s 3 readings and place these in Section II of your JOURNAL; 2) work with group members to

analyze Mountain Transect data and produce your Mountain Survey Report (analysis due Sept. 24; final report due Sept. 26). 3) Prepare your Natural History Proposal. During Tuesday’s class (9/17) we will split the class into two groups and ask each partnership to give a 3-5 minute presentation on your research question and plan… This should be summarized in a one-page handout for the class. In effect, you will be presenting your research proposal to about half of the class and we will critique your plan and make suggestions that, hopefully, will contribute to the success of your project. A copy of this handout should be placed in Section III of your JOURNAL.




        1--A Walk up Hidden Creek                 J. Harte 

2--Living Water                 D. Quammen 

3--Assessment of Biotic Integrity Using Fish Communities   J. R. Karr

Class Meetings:

9/17— Present natural history proposal to your peers

9/19— Spring Creek: Aquatic ecology field methods 

Assignments: 1) Provide a 200-word reflection on our Thursday field trip in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer reflections (150-word minimum) on each of this week’s 3 readings in Section 2 of your JOURNAL; 3) Begin the experimental phase of your NHP.




1--Colonizing Abilities of Biennials                 K. Gross & P. Werner 

2--Fruit for all Seasons                 E. W. Stiles 

3--Seed Preferences of Lumbricus terrestris (Angel) D. Shumway & R. Koide

Class Meetings:

9/24--Dissecting a journal article--(critical reading of Gross and Werner) [Mountain Project Analysis due] 

9/26--Seed ecology investigation [Mountain Project Report Due]

Assignments:  1) Offer a 200-300 page reflection on our Thursday field exercise in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) offer reflections (150-word minimum) on each of this week’s 3 readings in Section 2 of your JOURNAL; 3) Analyze data from Seed Ecology experiments and prepare lab write-up (due October 3). 




1--Selected Readings on Ants

Class Meetings

10/1— Working with Minitab to analyze seed dispersal data, Prepare for Ant Foraging Lab [Journal Collection 1]

10/3—Field experiments with ants [Seed Dispersal writeup due]

Assignments: 1) Produce a 200-300 word hand-written reflection on Thursday’s lab and place this in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer reflections (150-word minimum) on each if this week’s readings and place them in Section 2 of your JOURNAL.




1--A Lesson in Earth Civics C. Glendinning 

2--Comparing the energetics of… D. Aubert (example NHP)

Class Meetings:

10/8-- Help with NHP in-class discussion 

10/10--Ecological Energetics Field Problem

Assignment:  1) Provide a 2-3 page reflection on our Thursday field study in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer a reflection on this week’s reading in Section II of JOURNAL




1--How to write a scientific paper

2--Plea to a symposium goer D. Janzen

Class Meetings:


10/17--open; Becker/Thawley available all afternoon for consultations

Assignment:  Write Natural History Project paper and prepare your NHP seminar. Note: It is NOT required that you make a written reflection on this week’s readings



Readings: Optional--related to your NHP

Class Meetings:


10/24--Mini-symposium: Presentations of Natural History Projects

10/26-27--Overnight field trip to Allegheny National Forest; Leave Saturday, 4:00pm; return home 10pm Sunday.

Assignment: 1) Hand in Natural History Project paper—due Thursday, October 24th and give your NHP research seminar. 2) Produce a 2-3-page (typed and single-spaced) report on your observations, questions, and insights emerging from the Allegheny trip (due Oct. 31 with JOURNAL).






1--Hamburger and a Coke Ryan & Durning 

2--The Food Gap M. Winne

3--Unhappy Meals M. Pollan

Class Meetings:

10/29--Discuss readings

10/31--Sustainable Food Production Field Trip [Journal Collection 2]

Assignments:  1) Produce a 2-3 page reflection on this week’s field trip and place in Section I of your JOURNAL; 2) Offer reflections (minimum 150 words) on this week’s 3 readings in Section II of your JOURNAL




1--Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math B. McKibben

2--Merchants of Doubt         N. Oreskes & E. Conway

3--A New World (from Eaarth)         B. McKibben

4--Ecological Footprint C. Uhl

5--Fixing Earth by Fixing ourselves C. Uhl

Class Meeting:

11/5—Discuss readings

11/7—Film & Ecological Footprint Investigations

Assignments:  1) Produce a 2-3 page reflection on this Thursday’s lab exercise and place it in Section I of your journal 2) Offer reflections (150-word minimum) on readings 4 and 5 in Section II of your JOURNAL; (Note: your reflection on Reading 13—will be included in your Footprint Reduction Assignment; 3) Carry out Preparing for Climate Change--Footprint Reduction Exercise (report due 11/14).




1--Story: Creating Meaning in a Time of Crisis C. Uhl

        2--Strategic Questioning                  F. Peavy

Class Meetings:

11/12—Discuss “Story” reading in depth

11/14— Strategic Questioning Field Exercise [Footprint reduction writeup due]

Assignment:  1) Make a 200-300 word journal entry in Section 1 offering your reflections on Thursday’s lab exercise; 2) Write a reflection (200-word minimum) on “Story” reading in Section II of your JOURNAL; 3) Form groups and begin to plan ecological agency event.





Class Meetings:

11/19 Plan Ecological Agency Event

11/21 Ecological Agency Event

Assignments:  1) Produce a 2-3 page reflection on this week’s field activity in Section 1 of your JOURNAL; 2) offer a reflection (200-word minimum) on this week’s reading in Section II of your JOURNAL.







1--Mind: The Ecology of Consciousness D. Abram

2--Relationship with Soul: Finding One’s Calling C. Uhl

Class Meetings:

12/3: Discuss reading 1

12/5: Discuss reading 2 Ecological Meal + Ecological Identity & Self-Sufficiency- Meet at Friends Meeting House 611 E Prospect Ave.

Assignments:  1) Offer reflections (200-word minimum) on EACH of this week’s readings in Section 2 of your JOURNAL.  Journal Collection 3 is due Tuesday 12/9.



A grade, in our view, should be a symbol of your level of engagement with the subject. If you have worked hard to understand, think about, and interact with the subject matter of a course, you deserve a good grade. If, on the other hand, you have expended little effort on a course, your grade should reflect this. 


So it is that engagement will be the focal point for assigning your grade in Bio 450. With this in mind, your course grade will be based on the following:


i. Course Journal  (35 points)

-Journal construction/design & accompanying essay 5 points

-Journal Content (e.g., reflections on field exercises and readings (Journal Sections 1 & 2)  30         points


ii. Special write-ups (15 points)

         -Greenwood mountain exercise 5 points

         -Seed dispersal exercise         5 points

         -Eco-footprint/fast exercise 5 points


iii. Natural History Project (25 points)

-Proposal                 5 points

-Final paper                 15 points

-Oral presentation           5 points


iv. Book Presentation                10 points

v. Ecological Action Exercise        5 points

vi. Self-Sufficiency Project                5 points

vii. Ecological Identity Project        5 points

viii. Extra Credit: Resolving Ecological Mysteries up to 3 points


TOTAL         100 points


Letter grades will be assigned as follows: A: 94-100 points; A-: 90-93.9 points; B+: 87-89.9; B: 83-86.9; B-: 80-82.9; C+76-79.9; C: 70-75.9; D: 60-69.9; F: below 59.9. 


i--Course Journal (35 points)


Journal construction and design (5 points): The instructions for creating a journal are simple:

Use only non-virgin materials

A non-virgin material is one that is not new or being used for the first time. Some examples of non-virgin materials are: sheet of paper with clean side from the recycling bins of campus, string and ribbon from existing decorations, and cardboard from discarded boxes.  

Tell a story

Construct your journal in such a way that it tells a story" about you before anything is written in it. As much as you can, with the non-virgin materials you find, make it a reflection of who you are (likes, personality, hopes, etc.)  Spend time with this creation process.

Design for Accessibility and Durability

In designing and constructing your journal, keep in mind that you will need to be able to remove and replace assignments and entries easily.

This journal is going to travel with you throughout the semester. Be sure it can handle a good bit of use without falling apart. 


Journal Content (30 points)

Once you have completed your journal and written an account of this process, divide your journal into three distinct parts as follows:

1-Class Notes and Thursday-field-trip Reflections (explained below)

2- Reflections from course readings (explained below) 

3-Natural History Project observations, field sketches, and raw data (explained below).  

Thursday Field Trip Reflections (Section 1 of Journal):  We expect you to make a journal entry each week reflecting on Thursday’s field trips. The intent of these weekly journal entries is for you to make sense of what we did in the course that week. In your write ups, consider questions such as: What did I learn?  What questions still linger for me?  How have I been affected by what I experienced this week?  What connections do I see between what happened this week and in previous weeks, as well as in my life, in general?    


Reading Reflections (Section 2 of Journal):  There are reading assignments for each week of this course (about 40 pages of reading per week). These readings are provocative and merit your careful study. Sometimes you will be given specific questions to respond to; at other times your response will be non-directed. 


Natural History Project observations, field sketches, and raw data (Section 3 of Journal):  In Section 3 of your journal, place all the notes, sketches, raw data, observations linked to your Natural History Project. 

Note:  We will collect your journal and review it three times during the course.


ii-Special Write-ups/Reports (15 points)  

We require “lab reports” for: 1) Greenwood Furnace mountain survey, 2) seed ecology exercise, and 3) footprint reduction initiative. Details on report format will be provided.


iii-Natural History Project (NHP) (25 points)   

We learn by doing. So it is that an important part of Bio 450 is the Natural History Project. This project provides an opportunity to become an expert on a species or habitat or ecological question that intrigues you. To do this requires that you: 

--Spend lots of time in the field; go at different times of day and night and in different weather conditions. 

--Cultivate your powers of observation. 

--Craft a NHP proposal and present it to your peers

--Seek to understand how your organism/community/subject responds to different environmental conditions. 

--Figure out how your subject is connected to other subjects in the "eco-web." 

--Conduct experiment(s) to help gain a fuller understanding of your subject. 

--Read extensively on your subject--both books and research papers (at least 4 library journal sources in addition to internet sources). 

--Maintain a special Natural History Project section in Journal (Section 3).

--Write a formal paper (14-18 typed, double-spaced pages) on your natural history work. 

--Present the results of your work as a seminar in class. 

Note:  More guidance on how to proceed with Natural History Project will be given in class.


iv-Book Presentation (10 points)   

During one of several class periods during the semester, you and a partner will offer a 25-minute presentation on a book chosen from a list I will provide. The themes of these books center on ecology but vary widely in their specific topics and style of writing. This is not a book report but rather an oral presentation about the content and import of this book. Decide what is most important—most significant—in the book and then devise active and creative ways of communicating this to us. More information will be provided during class.   


v-Ecological Agency Activity (5 points)

Much of what happens in “school” has an unreal quality to it. So it is that students often speak of entering the “real” world after graduation. Our goal in Bio 450 has been to replace abstraction with direct experience. In keeping with this intent, Bio 450 draws to a conclusion with an exploration of  “agency.” The Agency project is a group action done during a Thursday class. More details provided during class.


vi–Cultivating Self-Sufficiency (5 points)

One of the ironies of contemporary education is that spending lots of years in school doesn’t necessarily lead to students accumulating practical life skills. For example, college graduates often have very limited abilities when it comes to making things by hand, cooking and growing food, and repairing things that break down (e.g., appliances, cars, leaky pipes). To the extent that one is lacking in such basic skills, he/she is can easily be rendered helpless. Thus, we challenge you to make, repair, or up-cycle something that you would normally buy or throw away. More details will be given in class.


vii-Ecological Identity Project (5 points)  

The Ecological Identity Project is the culminating project of the semester. It will entail expressing your understanding of yourself as an ecological being. This Project is grounded in the knowledge that not all of what we know can be expressed in words. By restricting our learning and striving for understanding to the printed word and verbal exchange, we foreclose a potentially rich realm of knowing. Indeed, for tens of thousands of years humans have engaged in artful acts (painting, dance, ritual, drama) to express intuitions and truths that often lie beyond words. It is in this spirit that we invite you to explore and express your ecological self--your ecological identity--through an artistic creation.

viii-Extra credit: Resolve a nature mystery (up to 3 points)

While you are engaging in other field activities for the course and going about your daily activities, keep your eyes wide open for things that you see in nature that prompt you to wonder, “What’s going on here?” By way of example, I will give a short lecture in which I show photos and challenge you to figure out what’s going on in the photo. I will award as many as 3 extra credit points (depending on quality) if you do the same thing—namely: Take a photo of something that you observed around campus or in local parks that, at first, was a mystery to you, but that—after some inquiry—you figured out an explanation for. In your journal, put your photo or sketch of your nature mystery and write your interpretation. This may be handed in any time BEFORE 12/10.



Learning in this course involves, first and foremost, your bodily presence. You have to be "on board" or you can't make this journey. So it is that we grant you ONLY ONE unexcused absence. You will be penalized three points for each UNEXCUSED absence beyond one. 

 Arriving late to class:  We will only excuse ONE late arrival. Each unexcused late arrival beyond one will be counted as an absence. 



1. Week 3 (September 14-15). Greenwood Furnace Camping Trip.

2. Week 9 (October 26-27). Allegheny National Forest Field Trip.



Students in the past have found this to be a somewhat demanding course. They have discovered that to do well it was necessary to have an inquisitive and open mind and sufficient time and energy to devote to learning.







Week 1 (8/26)




Week 2 (9/2)


-Journal Construction Complete


Week 3 (9/9)




Week 4 (9/16)

-Natural History Proposal



Week 5 (9/23)



-Mountain Survey Report

Week 6 (9/30)

-Journal Collection I

-Seed Dispersal Writeup


Week 7 (10/7)




Week 8 (10/14)




Week 9 (10/21)


-Natural History Project Paper

-NHP Oral Presentation

Week 10 (10/28)


-Journal Collection II


Week 11 (11/4)




Week 12 (11/11)


-Footprint Reduction Fast Report


Week 13 (11/18)


-Ecological Agency Event


Week 14 (12/2)


-Ecological Identity Creation

-Self-sufficiency creation

Week 15 (12/9)

-Journal Collection III



Week 16 (Exams)






 All University policies regarding academic integrity apply to this course. Academic dishonesty includes, but is not limited to, cheating, plagiarizing, fabricating of information or citations, facilitating acts of academic dishonesty by others, having unauthorized possession of examinations, submitting work of another person or work previously used without informing the instructor, or tampering with the academic work of other students. For any material or ideas obtained from other sources, such as the text or things you see on the web, in the library, etc., a source reference must be given. Direct quotes from any source must be identified as such. All test answers must be your own, and you must not provide any assistance to other students during tests. Any instances of academic dishonesty WILL be pursued under the University and Eberly College of Science regulations concerning academic integrity.


In sum, all assignments must be your own work. Consequences for cheating will be in accord with Penn State policy. We value honesty and believe that no one else's work can compare to what you alone can accomplish.