Trees As Our Teachers: Lessons From Past, Present and Future Forests

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
July 12, 2021 - July 28, 20217/12 - 7/282 WeeksOnlineCancelledOnlineLindsay McCulloch
Daniel Perret

Course Description

What would it have been like to take a walk in the woods 100 million years ago? What will it be like 100 years in the future? From pristine tropical cloud forests to urban street trees, forests play an outsized role in many global processes. This course will explore these critically important ecosystems and the species that comprise them, while building skills that are essential to thriving in a college classroom and beyond, including basic coding, data visualization, and interpreting primary scientific literature. We take a holistic global perspective to learn about the ways forests create and respond to change, drawing on diverse disciplines from paleobotany to soil biogeochemistry to dendrochronology. By the end of the course, students will have a broad understanding of forest ecosystems and the important lessons gleaned from their study.

Students will begin by considering the basic attributes of a forest and the astounding diversity of forests in the world today. We will then engage with scientific literature and focused case studies to explore how those forests have changed in the deep past and in recent history. Students will learn about the challenges of communicating spatial and temporal data, and find examples of maps and timelines in popular media to deconstruct and analyze. Finally, we will use the knowledge gained in the course to make predictions about forests in the future.

Over the course of two weeks, students will explore the many facets of forest ecology through a blend of recorded lectures, real-world observations, new technical skills, and published literature. Students will have unique opportunities to engage with a variety of science careers through short talks and videos by guest instructors, including other researchers, science writers and journalists, and community advocates. Students will further engage with course material outside of the virtual classroom through structured “field sessions,” either around their homes or through recorded forest walks with the instructors. These sessions will encourage students to engage with the ecosystems around them and think about ecological processes and the patterns they create. Students will then bring their observations together in virtual discussions on Canvas to learn with and from one another.

The instructors for this course are both PhD candidates in ecology with wide-ranging experience working in a variety of forest ecosystems around the world. Lindsay McCulloch is a tropical forest ecologist and an expert on how species work together to regulate nutrient cycles through her extensive work in the forests of Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil. Lindsay’s tropical expertise is complemented by Daniel Perret’s focus on temperate forests, where he uses tree-ring data to explore how climate regulates the growth of native and invasive tree species. Together, these instructors will give students a global perspective on forest ecology by drawing on a broad range of experience and research expertise.

By the end of this course, students will be able to:
• Understand forest structure and how forests have changed through time
• Engage with current issues and events related to forests and their uses
• Appreciate how past changes can help us make predictions about the future
• Read a scientific study and explain the main goals and conclusions
• Interpret maps and complex figures and understand how data visualization choices affect the interpretation

Prerequisites: High school biology and an interest in science.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEES0927

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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