Modern Approaches to Conserving Biodiversity

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This course is under review for 2021. Course registration will open to accepted students once courses are confirmed.

Course Description

One of the primary challenges for scientists today is describing and conserving earth’s biodiversity. Species extinctions are happening at an alarming rate, and human activities are putting enormous pressure on environmental resources. Yet this modern problem has a modern solution. Molecular tools enable us to discover, describe, and track biodiversity on a scale that has never been possible before. We can use DNA to better understand animal behavior, species interactions, and population structure. Using these non-invasive methods allows us to study and protect animals that are cryptic, dangerous, or otherwise challenging to track with traditional methods. By using these modern molecular tools, we can gather the information we need to enact effective management and conservation practices in a changing world.

This course will begin with a broad overview of the current biodiversity crisis, followed by a more detailed dive into modern methods of quantifying and conserving biodiversity. To achieve this goal, we will learn scientific concepts that are fundamental to our understanding of biodiversity, including but not limited to niche theory, evolutionary processes, population structure, species interactions, ecosystem functions, and phylogenetics. These lessons will be a combination of lectures, discussions, and interactive activities, with an emphasis on real-world conservation research. The instructors perform conservation research in both Kenya and Rhode Island, and we will incorporate discussion of those experiences throughout the course. We will also incorporate diverse perspectives on conservation biology via guest lectures and discussions of scientific and sociological articles.

In addition to classroom learning, students will gain hands-on experience answering a conservation-relevant question in a laboratory setting. We will use techniques such as DNA barcoding to measure biodiversity using samples taken from natural sites and/or consumer goods in Providence. Students will work in groups to develop and test a hypothesis, which they will then present on the last day of class. Throughout this process, we will perform important lab techniques such as DNA extractions, PCR, and gel electrophoresis. Students will learn how to analyze their DNA sequences using tools like the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST), as well as how to make compelling visual representations of their results. Through this lab work, we hope students will develop a deeper understanding of how molecular tools can be used to answer large-scale questions about biodiversity. Together, we will think critically about how this scientific knowledge can be applied to achieve better conservation outcomes.

As a result of completing this course, students will have learned what biodiversity is, why it is important, and how we can use molecular tools to describe and conserve it. Students will study key concepts in ecology and conservation genetics and will learn to read and evaluate scientific papers. We will practice lab techniques and will learn how to analyze and present the resulting data. Throughout the course, we will discuss issues of conservation and social justice and will challenge students to think critically about the ethics of how we acquire and use genetic information in a conservation context.

Prerequisites: This course is designed for rising juniors and seniors who have completed at least one year each of high school biology and algebra. Students who have taken additional coursework in biology (i.e., genetics, ecology) and math (i.e., statistics) will find that experience helpful, but it is not necessary for success in the course.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEES0924
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

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Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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