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An in-class role-playing activity to foster discussion and deeper understanding of biodiversity and ecological webs

In a general sense, biodiversity is an intuitively simple concept, referring to the variety of Earth’s organisms. Ecologists, however, conceptualize biodiversity in a more nuanced, multidimensional way to reflect the enormous diversity of species, niches, and interspecific interactions that generate spatiotemporal complexity in communities. Students may not fully comprehend or appreciate this deeper meaning if they fail to recognize the full range of species in a community (e.g., the often-ignored microbes and small invertebrates) and how their varied interactions (e.g., mutualism, parasitism) and activities (e.g., ecosystem engineering) affect an ecosystem’s emergent structure (e.g., food webs) and function (e.g., decomposition). To help students learn about biodiversity and complex ecological webs, a role-playing activity was developed in which students “become” a different species (or resource) that they investigated for homework. In class, students work in small groups to “meet” other species in their community and, as appropriate for their roles, “consume” or “interact” with each other. As they make intraspecific connections, students collectively create an ecological web diagram to reveal the structure of their community’s relationships. This diagram is used for further exploration and discussion about, e.g., trophic cascades, non-trophic interactions, ecosystem engineering, and species’ effects on the movement of energy and nutrients. This inquiry-based activity has been observed to sustain student engagement and yield productive discussions and positive responses. Further, qualitative assessment indicates that students’ knowledge about biodiversity and ecological interactions improves after the activity and discussions, suggesting that students benefit from acting in and constructing their own ecological webs.
Primary or BEN resource type
Secondary resource type
Discipline Specific Core Concepts
Life science discipline (subject)
Keywords biodiversity, ecological webs, interspecific interactions, community ecology, food webs, trophic cascade, trophic interactions
Intended End User Role
Educational Language
Pedagogical Use Description This activity is an active, student-centered approach to helping students develop a deeper understanding of biodiversity and interspecific interactions. In it, students role-play diverse organisms in a community to establish relationships and create a diagram of an ecological web. During and after these activities, the instructor can guide student learning with questions and feedback.
Primary Author Controlled Name
Primary Author Affiliation Loren B. Byrne
Department of Biology, Marine Biology and Environmental Science
Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI
Primary Author email
Submitter Name Loren Byrne
Submitter Email
Rights none
Date Of Record Submission 2012-11-29

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