THE TEACHING OF ECOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY LEVEL

R Balham
PROCEEDINGS OF THE NEW ZEALAND ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY   unpublished
The titJe I was given for my contribution to this symposium is indeed broad. As it stands, Jacking any quaHfication, it is meaningless, EcoJogy, by whatever definition you choose, involves many dis-cipHnes: and the whoJe question of the training of ecologists is important and fraught with problems. That university course structures in ecology have been exercising the minds of academics and administrators increasingly over recent years may bĩ nferred from the growing Jiterature on the subject
more » ... e the recent voJume, The teaching of ecology, Lambert (1967) and a paper by Harrison (1967), to mention but two contributions. The fact that ecology must embrace the physical environment as well as the organisms themselves means that other complementary subjects should be taught, many of which He outside the traditional science course. Few wouJd disagree with this statement: but from this point on the road is eJuttered with arguments, some of which seem incapable of solution. For instance, we immediately come up against the age-old controversy between the advocates of general studies and those recommending early specialisation. In terms of ecology this means the choice between training peopJe first as biologists before exposing them to the theories, philosophies and techniques of ecology; or streaming students after the first year of the traditional zoology, botany, chemistry and mathematics/physics courses into speciaJ fields, one of which might be ecoJogy. Both systems I feeJ have their pJace. Again, there are those who consider that the fully equipped ecologist needs not only the traditional subjects mentioned above (with zoology or botany -or bothto a degree Jevel), but also an insight into geoJogy, pedoJogy, climatology, cartography, physiography and so on. Because this is so often impracticable at both secondary and tertiary institutions, it is better to omit ecology altogether rather than give a partial training. This is an extreme view, but so is that heJd by those who advocate that all biology should be taught with an ecoJogicaJ bias. These are but a few of the major differences of opinion about what should be taught, when it shouJd be taught, or indeed if. it shouJd be taught at all. If we superimpose the equally controversial arguments about the function of education in general and the function of universities in particular, we are bound to get bogged down in a sterile exercise. The point I wish to make (and this is by no means original) is that as the need for ecologists in government, local government, river authorities. fish and game management agencies, etc. becomes better recognised, so it is realised that students with different backgrounds and outJook are required. We wiil need specialists in research and peopJe'with a general background but without detailed knowledge or experience in any particular field of research. To restate the case: it is pointless to think in terms of teaching in a subject such as ecoJogy without due regard to the end product, the growing and pressing needs of society and the types of careers available to graduates. During a recent study-leave in Britain I was able to see briefly how the teaching of ecology is being tackled at several universities whose aims and functions arc quite different. Lack of space dictates that I should err on the side of over-simplification and generalisation. As an example of early specialisation aimed at training people in the broad fieJd of management of natural resources, I wi1l cite the courses offered by the recently estabHshed Department of Forestry and Natural Resources in the University of Edinburgh. * Here, a pass degree of B.Sc, (Ecological Science) is taken after three years' study, or the Honours degree after four. The first year of the course covers the basic subjects common to all biology students -biology, chemistry and physics/ mathematics. For students intending to study ecoJogy, forestry, wildlife management or land-use ecology, the second and third-year courses are in ecoJogy and resource management. (In the third year there is some specialisation in resource management towards the proposed Honours subject-ecoJogy, forestry, wildlife management or Jand-use ecoJogy.) Time throughout is divided between '" So far as I am aware no British univesrsity has a Department of Ecology. The nearest to approach to this. I feel, would be the Department of Fc.rcstry and Natural Resources, University of Edinburgh.
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