Welcome to Experiences in Biodiversity Research

Students and faculty explore a fen.
Biodiversity research encompasses all of the rich diversity of life on earth, but can be challenging to break into for those without previous experience. This course provides a hands-on introduction to accessing and performing research in the biodiversity sciences. Source: Corinna Most, used with permission.

Course Description

Iowa State University is home to many researchers studying the most pressing scientific issues of our time: climate change and the biodiversity crisis. However, the sub-disciplines of the life sciences focusing on these problems lack diversity in many forms and remain difficult to access for those without prior experience. Studies[1][2] have shown that there are significant barriers preventing individuals from historically marginalized backgrounds from gaining experience or comfort in biodiversity research. For many, these barriers include lack of exposure to the outdoors and field/laboratory experiences, as well as unclear processes for accessing opportunities in research or graduate education. Experiences in Biodiversity Research is a course for early undergraduates to provide experience in the practice of biodiversity research and to demystify the path to careers in this field.

IUCN map of species extinction risk by country. Risk tends to be greater in tropical areas due in part to their concentrated biodiversity.
Biodiversity loss is a global crisis, however biodiversity is not uniformly distributed and certain areas of the world show greater extinction risk. Tackling this issue will require people from all over the world with diverse ideas and experience to work together toward solutions. Source: Our World in Data, CC BY 4.0.

Course Goals

  • Prepare students for future careers conducting research in the biodiversity sciences.
  • Expose students to a variety of biodiversity research contexts to increase their experience and engagement with biodiversity sciences.
  • Demystify the process of accessing research opportunities by teaching students how to find, access, and prepare application materials for research opportunities.
  • Provide students with a research experience in biodiversity sciences to expand their professional experience and increase their research literacy in order to empower them to seek future research opportunities.
  • Facilitate regular cohort-building opportunities to increase student sense of belonging in biodiversity research.

Course Learning Objectives

Following this course, students will be able to access, perform, communicate, and peer-review biodiversity research.

  • Access future research opportunities through the preparation of professional materials that communicate your skills and interest in research opportunities.
  • Perform biodiversity research through making and translating your observations of the natural world into research questions, hypotheses, and experimental design that are grounded in scientific literature.
  • Communicate the research process to your peers in a clear, effective, and engaging manner.
  • Practice peer-review by providing regular, constructive feedback through comments and questions on the work of your fellow students.

Course Learning Outcomes

  • Gained valuable skills in field- and lab-based research methods through hands-on experiences.
  • Developed a question, hypothesis, and methods for a research proposal and presented their research project proposal to their peers.
  • Gained familiarity with accessing potential research opportunities and a strong sense of how to present themselves as a competitive applicant.
  • Formed relationships with peers and faculty that will promote their success at ISU and in future research-based careers.

Course Materials

You will need to purchase a field notebook for this course. It is your choice which kind of notebook you use. The only requirement is that it have plenty of space for you to record observations for nine field entries, two semi-formal reflective writing assignments, and two peer review responses. For instance, a 6×9 inch notebook should plan on at least 4 pages for each field entry and reflective writing assignment and 2 pages for each peer review. If you have large handwriting, plan for more space. If you like to write and sketch a lot, also plan for more space. If you prefer a larger notebook, then you can get by with fewer sheets. If you would like a very durable option, Rite in the Rain provides excellent field notebooks, but a less expensive option protected from the elements (e.g. Ziplock bag) is also fine. Keep in mind that some ink runs when wet and that pencil doesn’t always write well when wet when considering your preferred writing tool.

All other course materials will be provided to students. There is no course textbook. As this course is a hands-on experiential course, it is important that you come to each class period prepared for the day’s activities and ready to engage with your peers over the materials. While some of the work in this course is individual, other components will involve peer review or group work, thus your preparation for class is also key to ensuring that your peers have an engaging learning experience. Please see the semester schedule for what each week’s pre-class requirements are. Due dates are provided for every assignment. With that in mind, life happens. If situations arise that make it difficult for you to prepare adequately for the week, please contact the course instructor ahead of time so they can help you make different arrangements.

Course Format

This course is heavily experience-based, so it is essential to come to class each week. Please review the course schedule each week to ensure you are properly prepared for class and ready to engage with your fellow students. All course materials will be available through the course Pressbook and Canvas. Here you will find the syllabus, description of course assignments, any supplied course reading materials, and other relevant information.

Most assignments will be completed individually, but occasionally they may be completed in a group. Additionally, some assignments will undergo peer review. Peer reviewers will be assigned. For group assignments, all members of the group are expected to contribute equally to the assignments, as this is essential for their success. Challenges with group dynamics are a natural part of life. If issues do arise, know that your instructor is very eager to help you navigate them.

Occasionally material will be presented to students, but most of this course will require pre-class preparation and hands-on work. Course instructor(s) are here to help facilitate course success and answer any questions you may have.

Topics, Experiences, and Assignments

Field Notebook

A scientist’s first task is to observe. Many biodiversity scientists come to their profession through a love of experiencing the natural world first-hand. Their curiosity of and care for nature are often drivers of their work as scientists. These intangibles are what will help sustain us as we face the climate and biodiversity crises. So, we observe because we love, but we also observe because it is the first step of the scientific method. Our observations are what lead to questions, hypotheses, and experiments that expand our knowledge about the natural world around us.

This semester you will be recording many observations of multiple different field sites. Your field observations can take many forms: notes on what you see or hear, sketches of your surroundings, questions that come to mind. But do not restrict yourself in the kinds of ways you take in your observations. If, for example, you feel like writing a poem while observing a field site – write it. See where that poem leads; it could very well lead to an insightful biological question. Leverage your creativity and inspiration to drive creative scientific thinking. Eventually, your field notebooks should start including questions, hypotheses, and ideas for experiments, but the path you take to get to that point is up to you.

The second component of the field notebook are the reflective writing assignments. These assignments serve to promote meta-cognition of all you have been learning about during the semester. Thus when initiating these assignments, spend some time flipping through your previous observations. See if you find any common themes in what you have been looking at – it is possible, but not required for these assignments to help you start to think about potential research proposals. You are also welcome to use them as an opportunity to consider how what you learn in this class relates to other classes or areas of your life. Their purpose is to be reflective – they don’t have any particular requirements, other than that you practice reflective thinking (a highly useful life skill, if anything). They should take several pages of your notebook. There is no particular length requirement, but a reflection of about 500 words should be sufficient to achieve the assignment’s purpose – but if you feel like writing more, please don’t hesitate to do so.

The final component of the field notebook is the peer review. A key component of practicing science is reviewing the work of your peers. Thus we will be engaging with peer review on several occasions throughout the semester. Two of those occasions will involve the field notebook. For each of these, you will exchange notebooks with a classmate, read through their recorded observations and reflections, and provide a written response. This will give you a chance to see alternative approaches you might be interested in trying with your own field notebook as well as an opportunity for you to make suggestions to your peers to help them grow in their observation and reflection skills. You will provide a typed summary of your impressions as well as any question that arose while you were reviewing their field notebook for them to think about going forward. Thus, while your field notebook is mostly a personal thing, it will be seen by two classmates and me for a final review. Consequently, it is not a completely private document; however it is expected that you keep private anything you read by your peers unless they have given you their explicit permission otherwise.

Project Proposal

You will write up and present a short project proposal. The purpose of this assignment is to help you to begin independently performing biodiversity research. This project will not be a perfectly polished proposal but will be a first step towards future research activities. To prepare your proposal, you should begin by drawing from your field experiences and observations you have been recording in your field notebook. Simply let your curiosity guide you through the first few weeks of the course before you would even consider settling on a topic. As you are recording your observations in the field notebook start to notice if there are themes or questions that keep drawing your attention. This might be a trail worth following.

Once you start to settle onto a question, you can begin to think of possible hypotheses to test as well as explore some of the current literature. We will be covering how to read a scientific paper in week 6 so it will be around that time that you can start taking this next step in the research process. Reading the literature is important because it lets you know what work is already out there – it provides context and a foundation to your question. If you find that someone has already addressed your question, that is not necessarily a reason to abandon it – consider how you might tweak the question: are you using a different study system or a different geographic location, for example? It is also okay to deem whether results are replicable – this is a core value of science but is sometimes forgotten in scientists’ excitement for new findings (we are only human, after all).

As you expand your understanding of the topic and settle on hypotheses to test, consider what experimental design would allow you to test it. You will have some ideas for how to go about collecting data from the field trips we will take, but you are not limited to those methodologies. This part may be challenging, so you will schedule one-on-one meetings with me to discuss your ideas and we will strategize on how you can approach the topic. The meeting should occur by early November.

Written assignment

500-1000 words. The purpose of the writing assignment is to help clarify your thinking on the topic before you put together a presentation. Thus, it will be due one week before the presentation takes place. It should include an introduction to the topic along with any of your own relevant field observations, your research question along with reasoning for the question, research hypotheses, explanation of proposed experimental design including methodologies, types of data collected, and a general explanation of how you will interpret those data depending on the result. The assignment should include references to primary research articles to support the proposal. These can include background context, ideas for methodological implementation, or other supporting information as you see fit. The proposal should have with narrative flow and a logical argument. Think of a proposal as a prequel to a research paper – you have figured out your rational, research question, and approach – you just do not have the results yet. Consequently, the proposal should be written in a way that is stylistically similar to a research article.

Citation Styles

You should use the following citation style for your written proposal:

Author (Last, Initials). Year. Article title. Journal Name. Volume(issue): page numbers.

It will look something like this:

Valenzuela, N. 2008. Relic thermosensitive gene expression in a turtle with genotypic sex determination. Evolution. 62(1):234-240.

For more than two authors:

Whiteley, SL, et al. 2021. Two transcriptionally distinct pathways drive female development in a reptile with both genetic and temperature dependent sex determination. PLOS Genetics. 17(4):e1009465.


10 minute presentation. The purpose of the presentation is to provide an opportunity for you to practice communicating science to your peers. The presentation should include the same content as the written portion, but the distinction here is that you will be engaging your audience in a different way. The best presentations tell a good story, so think about how you can translate your proposal into a story – typically you will want to start with background information so the audience members have some understanding of the context. You can use your background information strategically to build up to the research gap you have identified and the corresponding question you are framing for your research. The question then leads naturally into the hypothesis or hypotheses you are interested in testing. The final part of your presentation will be your experimental plan – what do you intend to do to test the hypothesis? Try to envision all possible outcomes from the experiment and how that will support or refute your hypothesis and inform on the interpretation of your results. There will be opportunities for questions from your peers at the end. It is important to try to ask questions of your peers in order to practice giving this kind of feedback. This is a very common way in which scientists provide feedback to each other on their work. If you attend departmental seminars or conferences, you will witness this first hand.

Professional Materials. Students will develop materials that will aid them in applying for research opportunities. This will include a CV, a personal statement, and an email template to use when inquiring about research opportunities from potential mentors. We will work through several drafts of this assignment to ensure students have a final version that they can be confident in and build upon as they gain more experience. The professional materials will also go through peer review by classmates. As a result of this, please be respectful of each other’s personal information and varied levels of types of experiences.

Formatting. All written assignments should be formatted in the following way: 1 inch margins, 12 point Calibri font, and double spaced. Your first and last name should be placed in the header of the document, not in the main body. All assignments should be submitted as .docx or .pdf file types. Files should be named thoughtfully and intentionally e.g., Lastname_PeerReview1.docx

Student Evaluation

This course is satisfactory/fail. To fulfill the requirements of this this course, students must actively participate in course activities and submit all assignment materials by their due dates, unless alternative arrangements are made with the course instructor ahead of time.

Evaluation in this course will come through multiple means including peer review on assignments, in-class discussions on individual and group work, a final presentation, and feedback from instructors.

All graded assessments will be returned with feedback within 7 days of the due date. Personalized feedback will be provided for each assignment and reflection.

Generally course deadlines are firm. If you anticipate difficulties completing coursework by the deadline, please come talk to me in advance. If you are in need of an extended deadline, you will need to contact me at least two weeks before the due date to request a new, extended due date that will better accommodate your circumstances. Once we come to an agreement, I will send you an email confirming the changes. Exceptions will be made for emergency situations.

  1. O’Brien, L.T., Bart, H.L., and Garcia, D.M. 2020. Why are there so few ethnic minorities in ecology and evolutionary biology? Challenges to inclusion and the role of sense of belonging. Social Psychology of Education. 23(2): 449-477. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11218-019-09538-x.
  2. Riegle-Crumb, C., King, B, and Irizarry, Y. 2019. Does STEM stand out? Examining racial/ethnic gaps in persistence across postsecondary fields. Educational Researcher. 48(3): 133-144. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19831006.


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Experiences in Biodiversity Research: A Field Course Copyright © 2024 by Thea B. Gessler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.