Research Coordination Network:  UNIDE:  Undergraduate Network for Increasing Diversity of Ecologists (NSF Award 2018939)

Participation of underrepresented minorities in ecology and environmental disciplines is low and has remained so despite efforts to broaden participation. Although ethnic minorities (Asians, African-Americans, Latinx and Native Americans, and people of multi-racial backgrounds) represent 29% of the Science and Engineering workforce, representation in environmental organizations, broadly defined is only 16%.   Recent efforts in pedagogy and scientific communication assert that interventions emphasizing skill deficits, such as low math ability can fail because they do not readily address cultural and social barriers that contribute to the isolation and marginalization that reduce student retention in STEM academic programs.  Cultural competence theory, which has been applied in medical contexts, provides a promising framework to address barriers to broad recruitment and retention in EE specifically, and STEM more broadly.  This project aims to identify culturally value-laden concepts that are foundational in ecology and environmental science; to develop evidence-based strategies to improve inclusion in culturally or ethnically lopsided environments; to assess the relative impact of color-blind compared to “identity-safe” teaching interventions at the university level; and to develop and promote pedagogy that promotes social-belonging in support of greater inclusiveness in ecology and environmental education.

This RCN-UBE will promote collaboration among ecologists, educators and social scientists to engage underrepresented students and practitioners, those who work with underrepresented students, those who are invested in pedagogical development, and those who practice in EE disciplines as distinct stakeholders.  The objectives are to co-develop inclusive, culturally sensitive teaching practices that are based on evidence-based pedagogical models to foster broad interest in ecology and environmental science to promote broad participation in ecology and environmental biology.  The results of this grant will contribute to developing the “cultural wealth” that is required to empower educators and practitioners to engage across cultures independent of individual background. This knowledge can improve education and disciplinary practice, and improve recruitment and retention of underrepresented students. Because cultural competence applies to many disciplines, the activities of this network can be translated to other STEM disciplines that endeavor to increase diversity.

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Plant-soil feedbacks and population dynamics of two arid system shrubs with contrasting spatial distributions and life histories (NSF Award 2120969)

Plant-soil interactions represent a burgeoning and impactful area of ecological inquiry that is improving understanding of plant-plant interactions within and between species, and controls on community structure.  The complementary expertise included in this study offers a novel collaboration to integrate plant-soil feedbacks with plant population growth.  This integration advances understanding of context-dependent population regulation and promises to advance future ecological research.  Outcomes from this research will provide important understanding of plant-microbial feedbacks at the population level and permit long-term assessment of these feedbacks, which is increasingly important due to ongoing changes in the occurrence and severity of drought in the US Southwest.  An integrated outreach component will support ongoing efforts to improve diverse participation in ecology and environmental biology.  By recruiting underrepresented student participants from an existing project that examines the relationship between identity and ecology education, the current project provides a unique opportunity to assess student field experiences with cutting edge research that treats cultural influences on student retention, and pedagogy. This synthesis adds value to both research efforts.

This study examines feedbacks between two common plant species and the soil microbial community of a well-studied arid plant system.  These feedbacks will be studied at different life history stages of two dominant species in the US Southwest, Ambrosia dumosa (A. Gray) Payne Asteraceae, white bur-sage, and Larrea tridentata (DC.) Coville Zygophyllaceae, creosote bush.  The study will occur in a field site at Joshua Tree National Park where more than 35 years of spatially-explicit demographic data have been collected within a permanently mapped plot.  Observational and experimental studies of microbial respiration, microbial diversity, and microbial composition in response to 1) plant species, 2) plant size and 3) plant density will be conducted, and outcomes will be used to project future population growth.  We will use specialized population models to measure differences in population trajectories that differ by 1) exclusion of microbial activity, 2) inclusion of microbial respiration but not diversity or composition, 3) inclusion of microbial diversity and composition but not respiration, and 4) inclusion of microbial respiration, composition, and diversity.  By including the influence of the soil microbiome on plant growth and survival, this project advances the ability to understand how plant immobility and variable habitat conditions interact to control the spatial structure and dynamics of populations and communities