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Conversation #99: Laura Spence on Ecological Thinking

A conversation between Laura Spence (Sterling College) and Bart Everson (XULA) on teaching, learning, and ecological thinking.

Laura Spence

Laura Spence, Ph.D., is originally from South Shropshire, England, a sheep-grazed land reminiscent of the Vermont of 150 years ago. Laura’s journey from Shropshire to the Northwoods, via New Zealand and Mongolia, has been one always in pursuit of the study of plant and fungal ecology. Her particular research interests lie in the interaction between plant communities and aspects of global change such as climate change and invasive species. Her Ph.D. research took her to the mountain beech forests of the Southern Alps, New Zealand, where she investigated the roles of forest dynamics, natural disturbances and mycorrhizal fungi on the invasive spread of an exotic understorey herbaceous weed. Following this, she joined the PIRE Mongolia project that investigated the ecological consequences of climate change and grazing pressures by nomadic pastoralism in northern Mongolia.


Bart Everson is a media artist and creative generalist at Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. His recent work draws on integrative learning, activism, critical perspectives on technology, and Earth-based spiritual paths.

Links for this episode:


Bart Everson: And I'm speaking today with Laura Spence, from Sterling College. And thank you for being with me, Dr. Spence. Just to briefly introduce you to the folks, to our listeners, I wanted to mention a couple of things I picked up from your faculty webpage from Sterling, that you are in fact from, from England from South Shropshire. Am I saying that right?

Laura Spence: You are yes. 

BE: Wonderful, and that you've also spent time studying in New Zealand, in Mongolia, that you’re particularly interested in plant and fungal ecology and global issues. I also couldn't help but notice under your research interests, fairy rings are mentioned, which I thought was just extremely cool. So thank you for speaking with me today.

LS: Yes, thank you Bart for inviting me. 

BE: Well, listen, the whole reason that I reached out to Sterling in the first place was because I learned, as I suppose a number of people did, because it was kind of in the news that Sterling had made some headlines. But before we get into that, I thought maybe we can just ask you a little bit more about yourself, and your life, just kind of what classes you teach. And you know, what, since this is the focus of our podcast, kind of what's your favorite classes, what you like to teach? 

LS: Yeah, sure. And so you've obviously introduced me a little bit, I am from England, I was educated in England all the way through to completing my PhD. So I'm sort of very thoroughly embedded within England and its educational system, a product of it. And it was at just the chance of marriage that brought me to the United States. You know, you make these decisions and opportunities open up for you. And prior to coming to Sterling — I am the academic dean at Sterling, and a faculty member in ecology. But prior to coming here, about seven years ago, I'd been working just purely in ecological research. So as I said, I am a plant ecologist, and broadly applied that interest to the global change. So lots of things are happening in the world now, changes coming out of human activity, which have many different ramifications across ecological systems. So specifically, invasive plants in New Zealand, and then the effects of climate change on the Mongolian steppe prior to coming to Sterling. And when I came to Sterling, which is a very small, liberal arts college in Northern Vermont. And when I say a very small student body is around about 120 students, it's intentionally that way. It is by decision, we're based in a rural area in Vermont, and it essentially has a very small student body. And I think a lot of my friends and colleagues at the time questioned my decision to come to Sterling. And because I had worked purely at R1 universities, and they saw it, maybe as stepping out of the fast lane, giving up on ecological research. And I didn't see it as that at all. I came to Sterling to teach. I was just amazed actually that a place existed, that was Sterling and had a mission that was entirely environmentally focused. When I first saw the job application and looked at it my heart leapt, actually, to know that this place existed. And that was one of the interesting things I found about higher education in the United States in general, is it was much more diverse than higher education in the United Kingdom. In the States, there are so many different colleges and universities with very different missions. With very different sizes, different locations, from rural to ultra urban, and with different philosophies of teaching style as well. I found it really interesting actually about higher education in the United States. Sterling College is such a great example of an institution that is truly unique with a particular way of doing things, a particular educational philosophy , with its focus on experiential education. And I just, I leapt at the chance to work here. And since being here, I've taught all sorts of classes in ecology. But now that I'm also in administration, my teaching load is reduced. And I typically teach three classes, the foundations of ecology class, which all of our incoming students take. So I think we're probably the only institution in the country, in which every student has to take ecology, we have a sort of a core and central competency in ecological understanding. So I teach that introductory course, I also teach conservation biology, which is at the other end, it's for our upper level students. And I teach it as a seminar class, where we're doing a lot of kind of accessing primary literature, trying to understand it, and then apply and discuss that in a conservation biology class. And the other class I teach is called field ecology, which is really an ecological methods class. It's about being an ecologist. What is it that an ecologist does, and I’ll probably focus on that as my favorite class, possibly, because I'm just hot off the heels of finishing it, I just taught it in an intense four week format. And so in this class, every student in the class does their own ecological research project from start to finish. So they design, they implement, collect the data, analyze, and then they will [inaudible]. And I love this class, because of course, there's an infinite possibility of ecological research projects that could be done, even in the space of two weeks of collecting data. And so it's really dynamic and unpredictable. So for example, this year, for the first time ever of about 15 or 16 years of supporting student research projects, I had one student who wanted to study the effects of music on bees, and came up with the interesting conclusion that bees are completely unfazed by listening to Tchaikovsky, while they collect pollen, but are distinctly put off by listening to dubstep and that the playing of dubstep drastically reduced the abundance of bees collecting pollen. So you never know what the students are going to come up with. And that is certainly one of the reasons why it is my favorite class. But other reasons as well. So one is some of the things I focus on in it. I really focus on science being an interactive process. And so there is actually a kind of a part of the grading is built in to acknowledge the collaboration that students have across one another, helping each other with those field projects. And so for example, some of that is actually done through critique. So students will critique the plan or they'll critique the methods. And then at the other end of projects, they also critique each other's presentations in a practice format. And so that's one aspect of the collaboration. But also I like some of that sort of spontaneous collaboration, and helping each other collect the data, and figuring out how they can make this job easier than all of us just working alone. If I help you for one afternoon and you help me in the evening, and it will be better for us. So that's really rewarding to see themselves nice to help each other with our projects. And I also like it when people bring their individual skills in. So this current year, I had one student who's a really skilled naturalist, very talented naturalist, and he used his skills to help a couple of other students identify invertebrates, which would be such a slow job without somebody coming in to really help with the moth identification, with the bee identification. So that's another reason why I like the class is seeing the individual students realize that their feedback is important and really helps each other in coming up with a better quality product. And that is especially through the final presentation. So this particular class, because it's really fast and furious in this intensive format, everybody doing their own project, it's kind of a bit mad crazy at some point trying to keep track of eight, nine; one case I think I had eleven different research projects happening at the same time. Because of that, we focus on the final presentation instead of a written [inaudible] at the end. And we always have a really an important sort of intentional practice presentation, that’s the process that we go through, and this result without fail results in a step up in quality in the final presentation, that I think is rewarding, it’s obviously sort of selfishly rewarding as a teacher to see quite a good presentation coming out at the end. [inaudible] Public speaking is often identified as a sort of a weakness of many students. And I think when they've gone through a really thorough practice process, and it's such a boost to their confidence to have a very effective final presentation. So, other than that, and I think this class epitomizes that idea of how ecological thinking is transferable. And some of the things that I really focus on, one has to focus on as an ecologist, when you're designing studies, is confounding variables, and the potential for bias. And if you don't identify and control confounding variables, or if you don't examine how bias is coming into the study, you're either going to have a project that is completely inconclusive, because you didn't control for some important confounding variables or very misleading, because there was a source of bias in there that you didn't correct. And so that process of identifying confounding variables, and thinking about how you might be putting bias into the system, the way that you're collecting the data, or the way that you're analyzing the data. I think you have to become it as an ecologist. Students are becoming it by looking at it in each of their individual projects. And it's really an important transferable skill. What are the different factors at play that could be affecting this result other than the one I'm interested in? Because I don't think about them, then how am I going to understand the system? So I think that that's another reason I think it's a really valuable transferable skill that comes out of being an ecologist.

BE: Wonderful, thank you. You know, I do know that public speaking is often listed as for Americans, as like the number one fear, I think, even more than anything else, and we can trigger some pretty frightening things. But apparently, public speaking is more frightening than all those. And so getting a little bit of experience with that is probably a huge benefit to our students. And of course, that's something that can be worked into all kinds of different curriculum, no matter what people are teaching. So yeah.

LS: I think the difference with this class, I think we often, perhaps thoughtlessly put public presentations into our classes. And without really thinking about helping the students do a good job of that public presentation. And, so I think that's what works particularly well with this class is there’s evidently a practice. And the students are involved themselves with giving each other comments to improve their presentation for the final thing. So I think the fact that the students are also involved in that critique, and then of course, they learn from seeing what their other students are doing wrong in that practice. So yeah, I think also, it's nice to give a certain kind of importance or otherness for a final presentation as well, not just having it embedded in class, but making it an occasion where other people might want to come other instructors, community members, we often do that. This time, not for obvious reasons, being in the pandemic reduces visitors but very often we send out invitations to the community to come to class.

BE: Coming back to what I alluded to earlier, your Sterling College, of course made headlines recently. With the re-configuration of reimagination recommitment of your mission, making action on the climate crisis central to the mission of Sterling College. And that was kind of dramatic, and certainly got my attention. I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit more about that and how it plays out for you as a teacher, you know, whether it's a big shift or just an extension of what you're already focused on, and just how it looks from where you sit.

LS:  Yeah, I think when you said recommitment that was sort of more along the lines of what this has been. And so being environmentally focused is nothing at all new for Sterling. And so it has been a central feature of Sterling's mission since at least the early 70s, maybe longer. For a long time. We had this phrase environmental stewardship in the mission that we were training, environmental stewards. Years ago, we did shift that mission, just a little collaboration of all of the faculty and administration. And we reverted it to be really fostering ecological thinking and action. And recognizing that perhaps that's broader, that we're recognizing that humans are part of the natural system that is the earth. And that in order for human systems to work, we really need to think about embedded within natural systems. So having a more of an ecocentric view of the world. And I think that ecological thinking and action really emphasizes that. So of course, climate change is one example of sort of a shift to the natural world that has many direct and indirect effects that are doubtless going to feed back and affect human societies across the world. And so that is a critical issue, as a critical example of global change that we absolutely need to address that that ecological thinking has to be applied to, it's not the only one, I think, and while the media focus may have been on climate change, or the kind of climate crisis as it was raised, and we also want to recognize a couple of other key things, and one is the rapid biodiversity loss, which is, I would say, a more  immediately pressing issue even than climate change. Rather, biodiversity loss, and the loss of bio abundance, which is basically the decline of the sheer amount of living biomass on Earth, which is also something which is happening at the moment. And so we also have that sort of within our strategic initiative, where we're focusing on addressing climate change, using education to address climate change, to address the loss, and also something more central to the human spirit as well, which is a perceived sort of estrangement of humans from the natural world. And maybe you've learned from each other as well and that maybe we can also use ecological thinking to break down that kind of barrier of us and them and, again, to think that humans are part of this natural system, and that we need to work with it, understand it, be in it. And in order to really be happy, I think as well. So I would say it's not really been a shift, it is a reconfirmation that is the reason for our education. And that is the central focus. And yeah.

BE: Thank you. That's fascinating to me. And we could talk about higher education as a whole for just a minute. Of course, I'm talking to you from New Orleans. I'm here in the deep south, you're up in New England, both small schools. But by contrast, Sterling kind of makes Xavier look big. But Xavier’s a small school as well, I think we have 240 or so faculty working here. And primarily, that's my focus in our Faculty Development Center, is working with faculty. Of course, every college and university is different, each one with a different focus, a different mission. In particular, Xavier, we're very kind of focused on our mission, which is as a social justice, and so forth as a historically black college and a Catholic institution. That the climate crisis, and these other ecological issues that you mentioned, will really affect all of us. The entire species, right, not, irrespective of boundaries and regions and so forth. And I'm just wondering, if we have universal responsibilities as educators, you know, you mentioned earlier that Sterling maybe just about the only college that requires a course on ecology, and yet, it seems like you know, ecology seems kind of like an important issue. And, you know, is it a problem that we let so many students go through the collegiate process without learning about ecology at all? Of course, not just the climate crisis, but all these other related issues. Do we have a universal responsibility as educators to address them?

LS: It's a difficult question and a very big question. And I don't know where to start. So interesting. One of the things you said, you know, should every college have some kind of ecology as part of class? I would put my highly biased perspective, would probably say yes. I think it's so fundamental for understanding the world that we live in, even if you never use that to study ecology, just using that ecological thinking, and that interconnectedness is so valuable. So I think that that would never be time wasted. Although I think that higher education is not the place. Yeah, I think that should be coming in at, you know, school. So that's another conversation. And I think it's a little tricky, isn't it? When, you know, are we talking about higher education as in the institutions, or our individual responsibilities as educators, and there's obviously a little bit different. And I think as educators, as individuals, our responsibilities are, to first of all, be honest, I think, to teach honestly. And I think that's probably an important part of academic freedom, being able to teach honestly. And then also, to the students to meet them where they are, I think that we need to recognize each student as the individual that they are. And that might mean that you have to teach your class in that way, I think. And that in order for the different students learn in such different ways, different ways to engage them. And so I think that that's, I mean, as an educator, those are what my mind's jumped to is sort of honesty, and the treating students as individuals, as individuals, and respecting their education being your sort of main priority. And therefore, I think that the question of: To what extent is there a responsibility relating to, to climate and other ecological issues or higher education? Or a sort of a whole faculty or an administration kind of question level? And I think a couple of things. One is that I do think higher education should be working towards the common good, whatever that might mean, so that there is some idea that this education is looping back to do good in society. And so I think that that sort of building an accountability and whatever sort of personal accountability, societal accountability, in whatever discipline. And secondly, I do, I do value diversity. It's sort of every level everywhere, you're sort of looking at diversity. And I may be touched upon earlier, when I said, one of the things which appealed to me about higher education in the United States was its diversity. And I think that a diversity of missions across higher education is really, because lots of different ways, there's different angles that you could think of. And I think sometimes you can be tackling a problem. One problem over here that you don't even realize you're tackling by tackling another. And so I actually think it would probably be wrong for all institutions of higher education to suddenly say that they want to tackle climate change, and that is going to be their focus, because it is not the best way of getting it done. And actually, there's sort of a strength in diversity and having a diversity of focus. And that if maybe the overriding principle is just that these institutions are trying to come in good. It may be enough.

BE: Yeah, that seems like some wise words. And I'm thinking that you know, just as here at Xavier, with a social justice focus, we might have, you know, some faculty who are also trying to kind of look at these ecological issues and incorporate that into their teaching. I wouldn't be surprised if folks at Sterling, as focusing on ecological issues are also thinking of justice issues at the same time. So it makes a lot of sense to me. Well, just to kind of wrap things up, and I've just kind of like to ask you, what you've learned in your teaching? I always like to emphasize that we learned so much by teaching. And I'm wondering what you've learned in your teaching at Sterling, that you might want to share, you know, with other faculty teaching other subjects at other institutions, because of course, our audience mostly, are probably not teaching in your domain at all. So is there anything that you might be moved to share?

LS: Yeah, gosh, it's a constant process of learning, isn't it, really teaching. And I would say that teaching at Sterling specifically, I think there's a couple of things that I have learned to appreciate. And so one is this, a lot of it's centered around the smallness, actually. And so the small class size, probably just Sterling, I knew that I loved interacting with small groups as an educator, but I didn't know why. I just thought that was all I could cope with, or something like that. But I think having now taught at Sterling for seven years, I think I'm beginning to realize why I like teaching small groups, and by small, I'm talking anywhere from 6-18 students. And I think it is partly that, as an educator, you are able to do that work, meeting the students as the individuals that they are. And learning about them is generally one of the things that happens in the very beginning of your course. You adapt the course accordingly. So sometimes I'll be adapting courses to meet students, particular student interests, and also teaching in particular ways. Occasionally, I'll have a group of students who really hanker after teaching in the outdoors as much as possible. And I will, you know, change my class so that we were going outdoors even more than usual. And, also the questions. So I'm somebody who was, I kind of believe that there's no stupid questions. And I think I've always believed that. And what I love is that in a small class size, you can foster question asking, in a way that is very inclusive. I think in a very large class, often the people who ask the questions are potentially privileged in some way. And I think in a small class, you can foster a community of curious learners who feel safe to ask the questions that they want to ask. And the great thing about encouraging questions is often students will then tell you when it is not understanding concepts, students bring in ideas that you hadn't even thought about, and that you can then explore as a class. So when often which what happens in often my foundations of ecology class, is that some random ecological question that I've never even thought of. And like, yeah, that's a great question. I've never thought about that before. Why don't we talk it through. And then we just go through those steps of reasoning that I would take, as an ecologist to figure this out. And the kind of class then learns in the sort of sets of logical reasoning that you would take to answer a question or if you can't answer it, what you would do as an ecologist to answer it. And so that often happens in psychology classes, I think it's really able to happen inclusively by being small. I think the other thing, which I think, is a benefit of that sort of, of that small class size is the project based learning. And that's what keeps it fresh. I think. Many teachers probably would agree with me that teaching is really tiring. It saps energy. And it's really rewarding. But at the same time, getting up there, being the person who everybody else in the room is kind of looking to. You're the one person  who can't not show up, even when your students can choose not to. And it can be really tiring. And I think, actually, that there are ways in which you can kind of modify it by teaching to make it less tiring. And for me that is welcoming the questions because they can pick you off who knows what and it can be really exciting and exhilarating as you do that. I'm allowing co-creation of curriculum. So that's the sort of the students are part of the process of deciding what it is you're going to learn and that's a really big one because I can't accept every year, the teaching is slightly different and new material, different material and the students are often kind of part of that. And I think it's Sterling. I've discovered how to basically constantly inject life into the teaching, which makes it less tiring. And an interesting thing again, another thing it's all about, it's all kind of about the power of small, I think, is my theme with what I've learned about teaching. The other aspect of this is that kind of [inaudible], one of the ways in which Sterling has adapted right now to the kind of COVID situation is the development of living and learning pods. So we have these small groups of students for around eight students who are living together in one dorm space. This means that we have relatively small kind of contained groups of students. And if we were to have a case of COVID on campus, then initially, they'd only be the one group of students who would have to retreat into a sort of an online mode only. That's how we've decided to take this. And so what is meant is that contrary to usual, students are not able to choose who they're spending their time with. They only really spend that time with you. And that has been so far, fingers crossed, we're about six weeks into this model. It's been universally joyful feedback from the students. And, including things to do with small date group dynamics that we weren't really expecting, and a quote, sort of paraphrased quote from a student that I heard last week. And I didn't even like the students who were in the pod with me, but it's such a great experience. And so this is somebody who's admitting that they didn't even like who it was that they'd been having to in the living and learning part. But there's something about bonding as a team, going through a kind of a common challenge together, which in this case, is the class dealing with covered COVID issues, cleaning together, so having to clean their own spaces, etc. And this is actually a really rewarding experience. Yes, once energy into a shared pursuit, a small group of students, and you're all helping each other. And you're sort of personal accountability as well as accountable to the success of your group. Rather, finish with the, for the final field ecology presentations that I referenced earlier, the students were all about three minutes late. And I was looking at my watch, there should have been at least one of them here by now. And I went outside to see if I can see all the students were coming together to the final presentations. The reason they were all late is because one of them has forgotten a mask, and they all got back together too, for her to retrieve it so that they could all join the class as one unit. And I think they thought that there was something maybe kind of symbolic about that for their final presentation. And I think that was, yeah, that was a really beautiful moment.

BE: Very interesting. It makes me think that perhaps, we'll learn. So some things about teaching and learning from this whole pandemic experience?

LS: I certainly think so. I mean, it is, it's kind of an experimental melting pot, isn't it? And we are rapidly sort of doing new things. You can do new polls, and some of those things are likely to stick.

BE: Yeah, I've been so busy scrambling around just trying to, you know, get things working. I haven't had much time to sit back and reflect on that, that'll come close in time. Well, thank you so much. I've been speaking today with Laura Spence at Sterling College. I wanted to thank you. Thanks to all our listeners. Thanks for your attention. And I wanted to remind people if they liked what they heard today, that they can rate us, review us, subscribe to us on their, whatever online platform they use to access the podcast. That's always helpful. Are there any last things that maybe we forgot to touch on or that you wanted to say that hadn’t been said?

LS: I don't think so. Just the ecological thinking, the power of understanding the interconnectedness of everything. That’s what we need to apply to our lives.

BE: It's a profound concept and a kind of bedrock item of many spiritual traditions. Well, thank you again. Appreciate your time. Have a great day.              

LS: Thank you.

Transcript by Darrielle Robertson

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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