NRT students create open-access materials about resilience

CRE students number the blocks in the game Jenga and play it with special rules to teach resilience concepts. Pictured are, from left, Julie Fowler, Jessica Johnson, Alison Ludwig, Rubi Quiñones, Conor Barnes, Dominic Cristiano and Daniel Morales.
CRE students number the blocks in the game Jenga and play it with special rules to teach resilience concepts. Pictured are, from left, Julie Fowler, Jessica Johnson, Alison Ludwig, Rubi Quiñones, Conor Barnes, Dominic Cristiano and Daniel Morales.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate students recently formed the Council of Resilience Education to equip the public with information and strategies for tackling harmful environmental changes like red cedars invading grasslands and toxic algae blooming in lakes.

Eight of the 10 students involved in CRE receive training in ecological resilience theory through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship based at the School of Natural Resources. Ecology professor Craig Allen and four professors from other departments provide the interdisciplinary training. Agronomy professor Dirac Twidwell advises the students in CRE, but students lead the organization and create its products.

“Part of our goal is that no one should have to take a whole course in resilience theory in order to understand and apply resilience,” said natural resources master’s student Julie Fowler, who leads CRE. “Otherwise, you’re just going to get resilience scientists who know this stuff. We think it’s such a good mental model, way to think about problems, way to think about dynamic systems, and way to think about climate change, anything like this, that it should just be a tool in your toolkit you can quickly pick up.”

Ecological resilience is a system’s capacity to withstand disturbance before the system fundamentally changes in structure and function. C.S. Holling laid out ecological resilience theories in his 1973 publication, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems.”

Since then, the term resilience has been used heavily in other fields like psychology and medicine but with a different meaning.

“There are really two competing terms, and one is simply bounce-back, and the other is sort of an emergent properties of systems that explains a system’s ability to absorb disturbance before it transitions to something quite different,” Allen said. “The bounce-back concept of resilience actually falls within that broader definition of ecological resilience because most of the time you bounce back, but if that’s your only definition of resilience, when you hit a threshold for which there is no bouncing back, the bounce-back idea fails to explain it. The other failure with bounce-back is that it fails to account for the fact that the systems that we live in and manage are constantly changing.”

Allen, Twidwell and other scientists clarified the distinction between the two terms in an October 2019 Nature article, “Resilience reconciled.”

CRE students are now trying to take the broader theory to a broader audience.

“Ecological resilience is a field of study that has so often stayed in the scholarly literature or stayed a little bit too much in journal articles rather than being applied, as it could be,” Fowler said. “So, we’re trying to take these concepts that could be confusing at first and make them very simple and present them in written form, visual form, make games you can play in classrooms, videos, anything that gives people an opportunity to learn how they best learn and get these concepts and then know how to apply them.”

The students are writing encyclopedia-style articles with resilience concepts defined and explained in simple terms. They also write what they have termed “case studies,” walking readers through concepts of resilience with local examples and providing teacher and student instructions. They have designed in-class games like Resilience Jenga and are producing a podcast and promoting the organization and its products through social media and recruitment events.

They have finished two online modules, “Ecological Resilience” and “Alternative Stable State Theory and Regime Shifts,” hosted by the Plant & Soil Science eLibrary at the university. The elibrary serves as a free resource to teachers, students and anyone else seeking background on specific scientific topics. It receives about 11.5 million hits yearly and offers lessons and animations in English and Spanish.

“The hope is that we’re just going to have a library of examples that you can pull into any classroom,” Fowler said.

Right now, the materials are geared toward undergraduates, but CRE students hope to expand that audience.

“One of the long-term goals is to have a more diverse audience, so materials made for use in high school classrooms, for land managers, for natural resource practitioners, for people in public policy, anything like that, but we’re starting with a narrower scope so we know who we’re writing to,” Fowler said.

Allen said the public has a great need for information about these concepts, not only to address environmental problems but to use as a framework for thinking about other complex systems.

“I think the biggest potential for this is to get some of these ideas into undergraduate classrooms, or even younger as appropriate, because I think, in a lot of our teaching, we lack teaching of these big, important frameworks that explain dynamics of the world we live in,” he said. “We are usually just fed facts, and people are used to looking up things on Google right now—really quick, easy facts—so having a sort of synthetic framework and getting that to students who are younger, I think would be very useful and critical.”

CRE members are seeking graduate students from other disciplines and other National Research Traineeship programs at other universities to join their efforts.

“We’re in talks with a couple of other universities right now, hoping to get similar setups going there, so that there can be an expansive, sustainable network of students constantly refreshing the library of case studies, of examples, and pulling in resilience as connected to complexity studies to systems thinking,” Fowler said.

The NSF traineeships are designed in part to build communication skills of science students. Conor Barnes, a doctoral student in natural resources at Nebraska, said students can improve these skills by participating in CRE.

“I think that the value they get out of it is learning how to do some science communication and taking the stuff that they were working on personally and communicating it to a little more lay or general audience,” Barnes said.

Allen said he was unaware of any other student effort in the United States to communicate and educate others about resilience. He said the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden has had communication and teaching efforts led by students but he thought CRE’s modular approach was unique.

Twidwell emphasized the importance of the work of CRE students.

“Resilience is one of the more important scientific concepts to have been introduced in ecology in the past 50 years,” he said. “It is critical that the concept is truly understood—and not diluted—for its potential utility to society to become truly realized.”

— Ronica Stromberg, Program Coordinator

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