Improving Wildlife Education: Fourteen Years of Change at Purdue University

By John B. Dunning, Jr., Andrew DeWoody, Bryan Pijanowski, Marisol Sepulveda, Robert K. Swihart, Harmon Weeks, Rod Williams, Patrick Zollner

Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University

We read with great interest the series of articles on undergraduate wildlife education in the Winter 2009 issue of The Wildlife Professional (Abhat and Unger 2009, Applegate 2009). We have witnessed many of the changes described in the articles while we interact with the Purdue students that come through our wildlife program.

Many of the trends mentioned in Abhat and Unger (2009) were visible to us back in the mid-1990s when we last underwent a comprehensive curriculum review. Even at that time, our undergraduates were entering the wildlife program with little experience in the outdoors, many of whom came from urban or suburban backgrounds. Their interests in wildlife had been sparked by what they saw on TV, not by a childhood of playing in the woods or fields (Weigl 2009). There were fewer hunters among incoming students and fewer students with a career goal centered on management of game populations. But there were more students interested in nongame species, exotic locales, and preservation of resources rather than direct consumption. Like today’s students, many students of the 1990s were quick adopters of new technologies, including telemetry and genetics; but less experienced at traditional skills such as game species identification and map-and-compass orienteering (Millenbah and Wolter 2009). In this article, we present the changes in undergraduate education that we have implemented at Purdue University and compare our current curriculum with that proposed by Applegate (2009).

Out with the Old
Through the early 1990s, our curriculum was similar to many traditional wildlife programs. Freshmen and sophomores tackled university and college core requirements such as introductory biology, chemistry, and communication courses with liberal use of laboratories but few field components. Our overall program included most of the traditional taxonomic-based ‘ologies (ornithology, ichthyology, etc.) but our students took these as juniors and seniors. All wildlife students took a junior-level vertebrate zoology that covered all major vertebrate groups; this course emphasized anatomy and function, when our students were interested in conservation and management.

Our department had a five-week forestry practicum in May and June to train students in field techniques. This course was required only of forestry majors (who got a separate B.S.-Forestry degree). Some wildlife students enrolled in a wildlife management option within our department’s B.S.-Forestry program and therefore attended the practicum. For the most part our forestry, wildlife, and fisheries majors were not well integrated—they did not share a common core of natural resource courses, even though the curricula shared common objectives.

The Challenge
In the mid-1990s, we recognized that our program had to change. We were losing students in their freshman and sophomore years, because there were few “interesting” courses (meaning, field-oriented and whole-animal focused) at that level. Furthermore, we needed to get our students into the field early and often, because most incoming students did not have extensive experience in the outdoors. We also needed to integrate the wildlife, forestry, and fisheries curricula so that we graduated professionals who could talk to one another.

A second issue concerned preparing our students for the competitive job market. Under our old system, a student might take a mammalogy course as a senior and discover that she had a positive flair for mammal trapping. Having discovered her niche in the field, the student would then graduate and have to go elsewhere to develop this interest further. It was unrealistic to expect our students to wait until after they graduated to get internships and summer research jobs to gain experience, but in our old system most were not qualified for these positions until they had finished courses late in their undergraduate careers. Given the perennially competitive job market, we realized that our students needed to get that expertise during their Purdue years.

Abhat and Unger (2009) also alluded to the last issue we faced, which was that our faculty itself was changing (see also Millenbah and Wolter 2009). In the early 1990s, we had four wildlife faculty to handle the needs of 160 to 240 wildlife students. Since then we have added faculty with expertise in wildlife genetics, ecotoxicology, landscape ecology, herpetology, and ecological modeling. The old curriculum did not reflect the expertise of these new faculty. For instance, our students took an agronomy genetics class that emphasized crop plant breeding. Many students had no opportunity to take courses in ecotoxicology or landscape ecology when these were not required in their major.

In with the New
For the last decade we have been teaching with a curriculum restructured in several fundamental ways. Fitting a nationwide trend mentioned by Ahbat and Unger (2009), our first change was to drop the upper division ‘ologies including vertebrate zoology. In their place we created a sophomore series of courses devoting eight weeks to each of four major vertebrate groups: mammals, fish, amphibians/reptiles, and birds. Each course covers basic biology, ecology, and conservation, and has associated laboratories that emphasize identification and taxonomy.

The second change was to require all wildlife students to attend a broadened version of the department practicum. The first two weeks are held in concert with forestry and fisheries students, covering field concepts useful across all disciplines such as orienteering using GPS and forest eco-classifications. The student groups are separated during the final three weeks so that wildlife students get training in wildlife-specific field techniques. We also moved our wildlife techniques course to the sophomore year and made it a prerequisite for practicum, thus enabling students to have an introduction to field techniques before the intensive practicum experience. Ideally this extensive outdoor experience sparks the students’ interest in a specific career trajectory (Weigl 2009).

The new curriculum also featured greater integration. For instance, forestry majors take the sophomore wildlife courses while wildlife majors take a class in forest ecosystems. We created a conservation genetics course to replace the agronomy class and broadened our senior-level vertebrate population dynamics course to cover a wider range of ecological modeling. Importantly, we initiated a department-wide capstone course that featured interdisciplinary teamwork, specific training in natural-resource planning, and problems at larger spatial scales. The capstone course culminates in the development of interdisciplinary, multi-faceted management plans for a local property or landscape, completed in collaboration with a local government agency or non-governmental organization such as a land trust. We added elective courses in ecotoxicology, wildlife diseases, and spatial ecology that included a GIS laboratory. We also created advanced courses in the ‘ologies, reflecting the fact that our sophomore series cannot present information at the same level of rigor as our previous upper-division classes. These advanced courses are offered in alternate years and taken as electives.

How Ideal is It?
Applegate (2009) presented a list of 67 courses that make up his “ideal” curriculum, which he defines as the “minimum necessary for successful practice as a wildlife biologist.” He estimated that his course list—together with mandatory college requirements—would require 125 to 167 credits to complete. Our curriculum (Table 1) contains 47 courses and totals 134 credits including mandatory college requirements. Adding as many as 33 additional credits in order to conform with Applegate’s (2009) ideal curriculum would require at least an additional year of study. At 134 credits our program is already larger than most other majors available at Purdue and equivalent schools, many of which have 125 to 128 credits for completion. The primary cause of our larger total is the six-credit summer practicum that has no equivalent in most other non-natural resource programs. Students (and their parents) are very cognizant of the costs of competing programs, and larger credit requirements translate into higher costs and/or more semesters to cost-conscious consumers.

Our curriculum includes nine courses totaling an additional 26 credits that are required for all Purdue students but are not in Applegate’s (2009) list. These include freshman English and communication courses, upper and lower division economics classes, and ethics. Combining these external constraints with Applegate’s ideal curriculum could result in as many as 194 credits, or the equivalent of a six-year program.

What are we missing from the ideal structure of Applegate (2009)? Our students are not required to take geology, physics, or climatology, and are required to take only one statistics course instead of seven. They take neither organic chemistry nor biochemistry. The three wildlife and four unrestricted elective courses within our curriculum would allow our students to add courses in animal behavior, entomology, landscape ecology, fisheries management, or silviculture if they wish (all of which are on Applegate’s list along with 21 other courses that we cannot require). We no longer offer courses in outdoor recreation, interpretation, or park management, due to faculty retirements.

There are some other differences between our vision and Applegate’s. We do not teach students how to drive a tractor or calibrate a sprayer in our wildlife techniques course. Instead, our student TWS chapter has field days during the school year to offer practical training and we count on our students to take summer jobs that increase their technical know-how. To some extent this difference emphasizes how a two-year associate degree, which emphasizes training, differs from a four-year degree emphasizing education. In addition, our wildlife management and techniques courses present basic information on managing targeted species of interest, but we do not offer semester-long courses in wildlife nutrition or reproductive biology.

Challenges for the Future
The wildlife profession is ever-changing, and our undergraduate programs must change with them. We need to train the next generation of scientists, natural-resource managers, wildlife-policy experts and other leaders in field; people who can squarely address what the National Research Council in 2001 referred to as the 21st Century’s Environmental Grand Challenges. These challenges include climate change, land use/cover change, water quality/quantity issues, among other wildlife-related issues. Meeting these challenges will require students to broaden their skill sets, work in teams, but also master discipline-specific knowledge. Our graduates must add sophisticated tools to their tool belt, ranging from advances in laboratory (e.g., stable isotope analysis, next-generation sequencing, metabolomics) and field (e.g., automated telemetry, ultrasonic detection, camera trapping) techniques to quantitative methods (e.g., hierarchical modeling, Bayesian analysis, and information-theoretic approaches).

The client base with which our students will work, advise and/or supervise is more diverse, and therefore our faculty and students must be drawn from a more diverse base (Unger 2007). We continually strive to balance both traditional and emerging techniques in our curriculum, with the recognition that proficiency with a particular tool may mean little as newer, improved tools become available. More important from our perspective is the need to develop students who know how to learn throughout their careers (Millenbah and Wolter 2009).

College administrators are pushing to make undergraduate programs more accessible to a wider variety of students, including those from community colleges and branch campuses. Such small schools rarely offer courses such as dendrology that are taken by our sophomores. A student seeking to join our program after the freshman year without these courses will be delayed a year in their programs, since they will not have the prerequisites to go to summer practicum. One possible solution is distance learning, but developing those classes is a specialty in itself.

Our field practicum is expensive in both dollars and faculty time. However, senior exit interviews consistently rate the practicum as a transformational learning experience and essential to the curriculum. Many of our students discover their niche at practicum—a few even discover that their niche is not in the field since they hated the whole experience. More commonly, summer practicum opens our students’ eyes and inspires them while they still have a chance to set themselves on a career trajectory. After practicum our students can select their electives to hone the skills they need in their selected specialization. They have time for internships, undergraduate research, and jobs as field technicians. The skills they learned make them more desirable for such positions even as juniors. Thus, practicum plays the role in our curriculum that semester-long field experience does in the program described by Minser (2009).

Purdue University emphasizes the learning of certain skills by all undergraduates: written and oral communication, leadership, critical thinking, and real-world experience, the latter gained in service learning (Powell et al. 2009) and study abroad (Dunning et al. 2008). We need to improve our training in all these areas. We agree completely with Applegate (2009) that today’s professionals need good public-speaking and effective writing skills, and we are looking for ways to increase both, since there is markedly little of either in our large-enrollment freshman and sophomore courses. Students also need practical problem-solving skills, which can include either extricating a vehicle sunk to its axles in a remote location, or developing an appropriate analysis needed for a summary report. Critical thinking skills need to be developed throughout a student’s career, not just in a capstone course.

Visions for the Future
At Purdue University we aspire to train the next generation of leaders in the wildlife profession. These future leaders need advanced training—a master’s degree is probably the minimum needed to advance to supervisory or leadership positions in government, research, and private wildlife-related companies. In assessing our program in 2010, it is clear that our students fall into two groups. A minority of our current students are capable of graduate work. A larger percentage struggle to meet the demands of our current curriculum, yet all too often it is this majority that dictates the rigor and expectations of courses. It is possible that our field needs to expand to two tracks of higher education: one that provides practical and technical training (perhaps through a two-year associate’s degree provided by community colleges), while the other trains individuals for a career as research scientists or agency leaders.

 In fact, there are probably three groups of students: those working on two-year degrees to become “shovel-ready” for entry-level jobs, those who are benefiting from four-year programs with more emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills, and those who wish to incorporate greater rigor and scientific training in preparation for a graduate degree. This diversity of tracts may require coordination among multiple colleges and universities to provide access to necessary teaching resources while minimizing expensive duplication. We currently maintain separate majors for forestry, wildlife, and fisheries and aquatic sciences. It may be possible that a re-organization of the majors to emphasize the level of technical training and scientific rigor among curricula might be more appropriate than maintaining separate foci emphasizing traditional management fields.

We agree with the authors of the recent articles in The Wildlife Professional that undergraduate wildlife education must evolve and improve in order to produce wildlife graduates who have the tools and abilities to be a significant force in our profession. Our curriculum has changed over the years to meet this goal and will continue to evolve as we see new opportunities. We are glad to see that TWS views undergraduate education as a critical issue in the improvement of our field. Like our colleagues at other universities and colleges, we are committed to making undergraduate education a continuing source of broadly trained, capable graduates who will lead our profession in the coming decades.

Literature Cited
Abhat, D., and K. Unger. 2009. Reinventing wildlife education to meet the needs of today’s students. The Wildlife Professional 3(4):24-31.

Applegate, R. D. 2009. A solid foundation. The Wildlife Professional 3(4):33-35.

Dunning, J.B., R. Meilan, D. Jacobs, G. B. Blank, T. Easley, and M. Olsson. 2008. Collaborative Study Abroad – combining efforts to improve undergraduate experience. The NACTA Journal 53(4):20-24.
Millenbah, K., and B. H. K. Wolter. 2009. The changing face of natural resources students, education, and the profession. Journal of Wildlife Management 73:573-579.

Minser, W. G. 2009. The benefits of “boot camp.” The Wildlife Professional 3(4):36-39.

Powell, L., S. Riley, A. Tyre, and S. Hygnstrom. 2009. The value of early experience. The Wildlife Professional 3(4):45-47.

Unger, K. 2007. Exploring diversity in the wildlife profession. The Wildlife Professional 1(4):20-25.

Weigl, P. D. 2009. The natural history conundrum revisited: mammalogy begins at home. J. Mammalogy 90:265-269.

Table 1. Selected courses in the wildlife curriculum at Purdue University
Freshman Year
Introductory course for College of Agriculture          Calculus (2 semesters)
Freshman Biology (2 semesters)                                 Speech Communication
Freshman Chemistry (2 semesters)                             Freshman English
Introduction to Environmental Conservation (FNR foundation course)

Sophomore Year
Economics                                                                   Statistics
Dendrology                                                                 Soil Science
Ecology                                                                       Wildlife Techniques
Sophomore vertebrate series (lecture and lab, 2 semesters)

Summer Practicum

Junior Year
Forest Ecosystems                                                      Wildlife Habitat Management
Natural Resources Policy                                            Human Dimensions
Botany elective                                                           Social Science elective
Economics (upper division)                                        Communications elective
Ecotoxicology or wildlife disease
 (3 more elective courses can be taken this year)

Senior Year
Vertebrate Population Dynamics                                Conservation Genetics
Fundamentals of Planning                                          Department capstone course
Social science / humanities elective (2 courses)          Ethics
(4 more elective courses can be taken this year)

Contact information for corresponding author:
John Dunning
Department of Forestry & Natural Resources, Purdue University
 195 Marsteller Street, West Lafayette IN 47907-2033
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