Article Alert: Restoration ecology education - a view from the literature.

Go ahead and type "restoration ecology" into your favorite search engine. Okay, what did that search return?

My Google search returned about 1 million results. A search for "ecological restoration," returned 4.25 million results. I never did this search in 1995 or 2000, or even 2005 when I began to work at the intersection of these fields, but I am confident that these numbers are on the rise. I would wager a fair sum that the number of search results corresponds to a growing interest in the larger ecological restoration field. Ecological restoration is no "Baseball" (549 million hits) or "Jersey Shore" (94 million hits), but to some people, restoration is a pretty big deal. As this general interest in restoration has risen (or so I speculate), people within other fields of disciplinary research - sociology, engineering, botany, zoology, geomorphology, landscape architecture, among others - have also grown their interest in collaborating, doing restoration science and restoring broken ecosystems worldwide.

So, if a lot of people want to fix ecosystem degradation (albeit less people than those who want to watch the World Series or MTV), where is an aspiring restorationist to turn to learn about the field?  One could (and really should) go volunteer with his or her local greenspace, conservation non-profit, or land management agency who is actively restoring degraded systems and start asking questions. Although place-based inquiry is fun, illustrative and a great way to meet new people, most of the people performing my little search won't get a job in the field with volunteer experience alone.  Professional training and education - admittedly post-recession buzzwords - are thought to be the answer to how one can get in on the ground floor as an employed restoration technician, planner, ecologist or engineer. I have conflicting opinions on how much academic training one should have to have versus how much on-the-ground experience someone should gain (some of the former, more of the latter - they're not necessarily mutually exclusive), but most consulting firms, government agencies and non-profits are going to want to see a degree in hand before they start ceding somebody responsibility and cutting checks.

What would that first step in the journey of a million miles be, that first restoration course? What would you study - would it be applied, basic, a "weedout" course or an overly broad survey?

Enter Jon Bakker and Justin Howell, former collaborators of mine at the University of Washington who recently authored a paper in Restoration Ecology on introductory restoration courses.  Bakker and Howell searched for terms "restoration ecology syllabus" and "ecological restoration syllabus," and found 67 institutions of higher education were offering courses in restoration. These universities were largely research universities, and most offered their course through and applied science department or school (forestry, natural resources, etc). Many of the courses had prerequisites in ecology or other disciplinary content.

Bakker and Howell found that most of these courses were content based, with skills being the second objective of introductory restoration courses and attitudes a distant third objective. These learning objectives were commonly assessed through tests, classroom assignments, projects and student participation. Largely, these courses were delivered in conventional classroom settings as advanced courses that focused on theory rather than practice. Basically, these classes were predominantly taught not for someone looking for an introduction to the art and science of restoration, but to advanced students.

The authors conclude, much to my agreement:

"A single introductory course is inadequate preparation for a restoration practitioner. In our opinion, the most significant issue raised, but not answered, by this research is how much RE/ER education should be required of restoration practitioners. Should participation be restricted to those students who have taken particular prerequisites? If so, how should those prerequisites be chosen? Is it appropriate that most undergraduate students are nearing completion of their programs before they are able to take an introductory course in RE/ER, or should introductory courses be targeted to earlier
academic levels? How important is formal restoration education compared to practical on-the-job experience? This issue is particularly pertinent in light of SER’s development of a Practitioners’ Certification Program.... "

Carex obnupta at a ten-year-old student site on the Union Bay Natural Area, Seattle, Washington
As restoration increases in general popularity, the restoration community will see increasing interest in courses and professional certifications (much like the Professional Wetland Scientist distinction offered through the Society of Wetland Scientists). Accordingly, universities and in academia's absence, for-profit schools like those within the wetland field, will jump at the chance to provide education opportunities. With this in mind, Bakker and Howell clearly delineate the state of introductory restoration education in America and Canada, and raise good questions as to what students should be delivered in such courses.

I suppose this begs the question: does a good restoration ecology theoretician make a good ecological restoration practitioner? What matters most to employers - academic chops or on-the-ground prowess and tangible skills? Are these courses being delivered to appease the academics who created them or to serve the students whose goals range from PhD programs to summer internships and consulting gigs? Are these courses creating knowledgeable restoration designers or paper-citing academics? To use an economic term, are these courses creating "value" e.g. real skills that make a student able to solve a complex problem in a changing environment? Is there a middle between teaching the theory and the practice? If you blend the two, does either camp of students benefit or do all parties lose?

The good news is that these classes will almost certainly increase in number and hopefully, diversity, so some of these answers will work themselves out in real time. I know I look forward to seeing what courses develop to inspire, educate and train future restorationists and ecologists.

Citation (full text linked):
Bakker, J.D. and J.M. Howell. 2011. An assessment of introductory restoration courses in the U.S. and Canada. Restoration Ecology 19: 572-577.