From microscopy to Anthropocene extinction: Placing biodiversity conservation at the center of biology education and the NGSS
Dr Joel Cohen’s (Visiting Scholar at the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University, North Carolina, USA) career in life science education builds on prior research, international agricultural service, and more recently, maintaining a biodiverse planet. This last passion brought him to his current position. His ongoing commitment is to the education of biologists and citizens on biodiversity-related topics from the microscopic to Anthropocene extinctions. He advocates for a sense of purpose in science, agreeing with E.O. Wilson that students are often “presented with an intellectual triathlon in order to go into science”, rather than education providing opportunities to follow their passions. And finally, Dr Cohen models “sense of purpose” by commemorating notable scientists.
In an effort to improve the quality of science education in schools, many US states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards provide a framework for what students should know and understand about each topic, but the NGSS also aim to encourage and inspire future scientists. This means there is a push for teachers to meet the demands of the curriculum and to encourage critical thinking and consideration of real-world applications. Hence, there will always be a demand for novel approaches that both educate and engage students during class time – covering key components of the NGSS while also helping students develop interests and understanding that could drive their future scientific careers.
Dr Joel Cohen is a Visiting Scholar at the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University (North Carolina, USA), a science teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools (Maryland, USA), and a teacher of microscopy for the Johns Hopkins Centre for Talented Youth (Maryland, USA).
This article provides summaries of two of Dr Cohen’s publications which address the need for novel teaching techniques to convey complex information. Finally, this article summarises Dr Cohen’s paper describing the challenges faced during the career of Nikolai Vavilov, as a means to encourage students to learn from and commemorate the scientists who came before us.
Instil curiosity and exploration: applications of microscopy
In a paper published in 2020, Dr Cohen suggests that a microscopy project he teaches for the John Hopkins Centre for Talented Youth (CTY) could be applied in secondary school biology courses. He believes that while the current approaches in schools do give students some practical skills, they don’t consider the various uses of microscopes, challenge students, or encourage interest in future careers involving microscopy. Therefore, a course such as the one used by CTY, which covers a broad range of key points from cell structure through microorganism identification to interactions between organisms and their environment, would be in-line with the aims of the NGSS.
“It is an educator’s responsibility to encourage consideration of human impact on the environment and global biodiversity.”
The project begins with a short exercise to establish ideas of the size and scales involved before students are taught how a microscope functions and how to use it. Then, students are ready to study living microorganisms from each of the six kingdoms of life (Archaebacteria, Eubacteria, Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia). This project requires a model of a freshwater pond, created by adding Carolina® pond mix to spring water in an aquarium. After a short wait for the “pond” to mature, it can be divided into “mini-ponds” in glass specimen jars, which the students then use to study the microorganisms present. The project ends with a group activity where the students choose a microorganism to investigate, and present to the class what they have learned about the organism’s interactions with the pond environment and other organisms, the effect of pollution, and how the microorganism’s structure helps it survive.
By the end of the three-week CTY course, the students have developed confidence in several new skills. They prepare slides from aqueous material using pipettes, clear debris to view the specimens of interest, and identify the microorganisms that they find. Students also use digital microscopes to take photos or videos of the microorganisms, estimate their length or width, and study their movement and development. Pre- and post-course testing over 7 years found an average increase of 28% in test scores. However, Dr Cohen believes that this project also challenges them to consider the big picture (complex organism and environment interactions) and engages students in a way that could encourage future scientific careers.
Encourage respect for the natural world: biodiversity
The “Anthropocene” epoch is defined as the time from when humans began to have a significant impact on Earth’s geography and ecosystems, and one of the largest of those impacts is the ongoing Anthropocene extinction event. There are many growing projects creating data on this event; many propose strategies for conservation and preservation of endangered species.
In his second paper, Dr Cohen suggests that from an educator’s perspective, this might be too much information. Human impact on the environment is a very complex topic which needs to consider evolution, politics and biodiversity measurement, and teachers may struggle to sort through these interrelated topics.
Dr Cohen suggests a simplified exercise to increase students’ awareness of Anthropocene extinctions. The lesson uses the Anthropocene Species Event Indicator (ASEI) and focuses on animal species as this is likely to hold students’ interest. Students populate a database with information regarding selected species – in particular, the date the species was first described (D), the date the decline of the species was first noticed (C), and the date the species was declared extinct or as having recovered (E or R). ASEI intervals are the time (in years) between D and C, and between C and E/R. The ASEI value is created by dividing these two intervals. If the value is high it means there is a large difference between the intervals, but if the value is low this suggests that the time to recognise the declining species is low. The aim is to compare if, once a species decline is noted, intervention is able to lead to the species’ recovery, and to encourage students to do their own investigation into the history of the given species.
This is a deliberately simplified activity aimed at the NGSS standard “What is biodiversity, how do humans affect it, and how does it affect humans?”
Emulate the courage of notable individuals: Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov
Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) was a Russian crop scientist appointed as Director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Science during Lenin’s rule. Vavilov was a proponent of Mendelian genetics, and during his career he conceived major advancements in botany, specifically crops. However, things changed for Vavilov in 1924, when Stalin came to power. In a 2021 paper, Dr Cohen discussed the four major challenges faced by Vavilov during Stalin’s rule.
Vavilov was under pressure to produce results quickly – but there is no shortcut when improving crops with selective breeding. Stalin had pushed the collectivisation of farms to pay for rapid industrialisation, but this led to widespread famine. He used Vavilov as a scapegoat, accusing him of sabotaging Russia’s agriculture, and favoured Trofim Lysenko’s plans for improving crops. Lysenko advocated for “vernalisation” – a process of using cold shock on germinating seed to increase yield.
The second challenge was obtaining resources to support Vavilov’s work. Under Stalin’s rule, Vavilov struggled to get funding for the staffing or travel required to improve and maintain his genebank, largely due to Stalin’s criticism.
The third challenge was that the “dwarfing” of wheat crops to increase yield wasn’t identified until the 1950s – too late to help Vavilov.
The final challenge was that Vavilov had a comparatively short term as Director, and that he had to start from scratch. He had to commandeer scientific equipment – modernising each research institution personally – before he could begin his selective breeding programs. Vavilov did attempt to explain his work to Stalin, but Stalin staunchly supported Lysenko’s theories, eventually having Vavilov imprisoned and replacing him with Lysenko.
Vavilov died in prison and was widely discredited and struck from Soviet records after his death, until 1955 when Nikita Khrushchev authorised Vavilov’s rehabilitation. Since then, the importance of having credible scientific input into governance is widely recognised.
Dr Cohen’s recent work on the life of Vavilov was also presented in a podcast, which can be found here: https://fieldlabearth.libsyn.com/nikolai-vavilov-with-dr-joel-cohen
What drives your enthusiasm for education, especially environmental studies?
I would agree with another one of E.O. Wilson’s ideas, that we are entering a time when environmental science and related studies will be crucial to our wellbeing. To further this, as Wilson says, it will be a time when “we want to take care of the environment around us, treat the Earth the way we would a person and keep it healthy.” To accomplish this, I would shift to a far greater emphasis on biodiversity instruction.
How does one maintain an enthusiasm for teaching?
There are three factors here: first comes preparing the students to achieve, which means seeing them go beyond their previous personal best; second would be maintaining a love of topic; and third, having a reliable space of one’s own for preparing lessons and discussions or reviews with students. With these things in place, students feel at ease because the teacher is at ease, and thus open up about the course and lessons.
What fascinates you about Nikolai Vavilov?
Besides the challenges of a nation’s food production and food security, is the political control over food availability. In times of shortage, distribution of food stuffs can be manipulated such that the political elite eat, while those not in favour starve. Thus, though not as visible during times of food abundance, the long arm of politics is never too far from those producing the country’s food. To ensure best chances for quantities and nutrition, Vavilov advocated for a strong, science-based research system, primarily removed from political interference.
Motto to live and work by:
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them.” – Ida B. Wells, Civil Rights Activist
- Cohen, J.I. (2020). Applications of microscopy in science education: gifted youth, public school, and the next-generation science standards (NGSS). Journal of Biological Education. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2020.1720772
- Cohen, J.I. (2016). Biodiversity Education & the Anthropocene: An Indicator of Extinction or Recovery. The American Biology Teacher, 78(4):293-299. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2016.78.4.293
- Cohen, J.I. (2021). Varietal timelines and leadership challenges affecting the legacy of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Crop Science, 1-10. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/csc2.20425
Dr Cohen pursues independent research with educational applications to: encourage respect for the natural world among the next generation of scientists, instil curiosity and exploration, and emulate the courage of notable individuals.
- Steven Altman
- Michael Blakeney
- Walton C. Galinat
- John Komen
- Igor Loskutov
- Sue Muller
- Rob Paarlberg
- Stuart Pimm
- Christopher Potter
- Calvin Qualset
- Silvia Salazar
- Stephan Wolniak
All of Dr Joel Cohen’s research, educational work and outreach had its origin in his two-year Peace Corps service in Nepal, where he worked with smallholder farmers in the foothills of the Himalayas. This interest led to an agricultural degree in genetics and to his international work assisting national programs in developing countries facing challenges in agricultural research and related environmental practices.
Presently, he conducts research as a Visiting Scholar with Dr Stuart Pimm of the Nicholas School for the Environment, Duke University. He is studying the capacity for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park to become a “conservation corridor” capable of conserving species. Simultaneously, he is enrolled in Nicholas School for the Environment’s Certification for Environmental Communication.
More information on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park project can be found here: https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2021/02/capitals-corridor-chesapeake-and-ohio-canal-national-historical-park
Dr Cohen is presently working on his forthcoming book, An Alphabetized Guide to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Dr Joel I. Cohen
Visiting Scholar, Nicholas School of the Environment
Duke University, Durham
T: +36 26 393129
Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joel-Cohen-9