07 March 2014

Ecology by numbers

In which we see that maths and stats are at the heart of ecology.

One of the things about aging, gracefully or otherwise, is that you obtain a better appreciation of being organised. That's not to say that we necessarily get better at organising ourselves as we age but we can certainly see its advantages. This is particularly the case when you have teenage boys. In the summer ours is a cricketing household. Cricket takes up most of a day, has a lot of gear and, for us, can be played all over Canterbury. So a high degree of organisation and planning is required. Food and drink need to be taken, sunblock applied and kept ready, white clothing cleaned and in gear bag, pads and gloves dried from the previous game and in the bag, spikes for grass wickets put into shoes after being taken out for last week's artificial pitch. Or at least that is what I mean when I say to my sons "I want you ready to go in 30 minutes". "Yes, yes, already done" they reply. Unfortunately, 'ready to go' means something rather different to a teen. To a teen 'ready to go' actually means 'I will be sweet as long as everything is where I threw it a week ago (unlikely)'. Hilarity ensues (if by hilarity you mean yelling, cursing and rising blood pressures).
Ecologists need to be more sophisticated at analyses

A similar situation is present in ecology teaching. As you gain experience in ecology it becomes painfully obvious that you need to know a lot about numbers, the joy of statistics, the call of calculus, the - well you get my drift. Ecology can be data rich and there are some very sophisticated approaches to analysing and modelling data. Getting a good grounding in statistics and so on will help you to understand ecology fully, allow you to access the science literature in depth and allow you to design a robust study of your own. The Department of Ecology have just revamped their curriculum to add more quantitative methods to what the students learn.So we say to the students "maths and stats are good for you and your ecology, take all opportunities to do these things". Of course what the students hear is something more like "maths and stats are frightening and should be avoided at all costs". Hilarity ensues (if by hilarity you mean yelling, cursing and rising blood pressures).

Ecologists can gather a lot of data but need to be able to do something with it
A number of ecologists, including our very own Tim Curran, have just published a study in PeerJ. In this study they surveyed early-career ecologists about what they thought of their maths and stats training during their time at university. Over 900 people responded to the online survey, the majority were current PhD and Masters students, mostly from Europe and North America. About 75% were not satisfied with the amount of maths and stats that they had done, 90% wanted more math classes in degrees and 95% suggested more statistics classes. I suspect that if we surveyed our own students that we would obtain similar results. So why don't we have more quantitative courses in our degree? We have just changed or courses at Lincoln and they do have more quantitative components but nothing like what is being suggested here. There are a couple of reasons. First, if we surveyed other ecological areas, like knowledge of particular groups, say plants or beetles, then students would likely give similar results. They want to know more, that's why they are students. Second, undergraduate students, as a group, really loathe maths and stats. When we have have tried to bring in courses with more math they have not done very well as students tend to avoid them. Third, this survey is a reasonably 'biased' group. It is made up of academic ecologists who do need these skills. However, the majority of students enrolled in ecology do so for other reasons than a career in research.

So what should we do? We know as professional ecologists that maths and stats are really important. However, telling people what's good for them very rarely works (even when you are right).... So I guess patience and small changes with the long view in mind are the only real way to change behaviour. Something I need to tell myself tomorrow as I try to get my cricket boys out of the door.

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