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Students Test Ecology Concepts With NEON Data

It’s one thing to read about ecological concepts in a textbook. It’s another to see them revealed by real-world data.

Students in Paul Venturelli’s class at Ball State University recently explored key ecological concepts using data from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) program. Paul, an Assistant Professor in the Ball State University Department of Biology, created the assignment to reinforce the concepts that his students were learning in class and help them to develop important data skills.

Bringing Ecological Principles to Life

Paul explains, “This is largely a lecture-based class; students take a separate lab section that gives them experience collecting and analyzing their own data. I developed the project as a hands-on component that gives students experience in using and analyzing real-world data.”

Traditionally, students in Paul’s Ecology 216 class completed a semester-long term project on controlling human population growth using data from the Gapminder database, which compiles data from a variety of sources including the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organization and other governmental and non-governmental sources. This project did give students practice in using data skills, but did not tie very closely to the content of the course. Paul wanted students to gain experience in using data that reinforced the ecological concepts they were studying in class, such as competitive exclusion, ecosystem response to disturbances, and factors influencing species range, abundance and diversity.

The NEON database provided an alternative data source that was more closely aligned to the course content. Paul credits his wife, Jessica Ward (also a professor in the BSU Department of Biology), with the idea for using NEON data.

The assignment asked students to try to reproduce or demonstrate known principles and concepts from their ecology textbook using data from the NEON project. “The idea was to take a concept, such as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, and look for evidence of it in data from the NEON database,” Paul says. “Using the data reinforces the concepts that they are learning and helps them to see how ecological processes actually play out in the real world.”

Developing Skills for Data-Driven Ecology

Paul’s students are also developing data skills that have become increasingly important in ecological research. Large-scale networks like the NEON project, the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, AmeriFlux, Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON), and the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) are shifting the focus of ecology from individual, field-based research to a more collaborative, data-driven approach.

Paul says, “The availability of these large data sets opens up a new realm of opportunities for doing ecological research. They will allow us to ask questions that were difficult or impossible to answer in the past. Students need to develop the skills to interact with these large data sets and analyze data to explore different kinds of questions.”

Data-driven ecology allows researchers to ask questions across multiple systems and over large temporal and spatial scales. NEON will collect over 175 data products from field sites across the continent for the next 30 years, creating an ecological database of unprecedented scale and scope. Because data are collected using strictly standardized methods at each terrestrial or aquatic field site, they are easily comparable between sites and across time. All NEON data products are freely available to researchers, students and the public through the NEON Data Portal.

Using data from NEON and other large-scale networks also enables researchers to tackle complex questions without the time and expense of conducting their own individual field research. These networks collect data at scales that could not possibly be reproduced by individual researchers or small teams. “There are certainly benefits to collecting our own data in the field, but there are time and resource constraints that limit what we can do,” says Paul. “These databases open up new opportunities for research, especially for students with limited time to conduct their own field work. They can now pull data across multiple states and over multiple years to test their hypotheses.”

From Data to Discovery

Paul considers this year’s project a pilot, and he plans to make some changes before introducing it to his next class. “I’ll give them a little more guidance on what kinds of concepts the NEON data are best suited for,” he says. He may also allow his students to pull in data from other ecological networks.

But he will definitely be using NEON data in his classes again, and perhaps even for his own research. “The NEON database is great for my students because it’s from the U.S., so it’s more relatable than looking at data from places they aren’t familiar with. They can find things that are more local or see what ecological processes look like across different ecosystems,” he says. Paul and his students also appreciated the diversity of data products and the extensive metadata, which gave students a window into how data were collected and the effort that goes into field collection. “The fingerprints of the researchers are in the data. My students could understand the collection methods and live vicariously through the researchers by looking at the data.”

Working in groups of four, Paul’s students explored an impressive range of research questions using the NEON data. Projects included explorations of beetle diversity and natural disturbances, plant cover as a function of precipitation, competitive exclusion in small mammals, the effects of temperature on small mammal abundance and diversity, and the impact of drought on vegetation height. Students analyzed the data and developed a final report and a presentation. In some cases, such as the beetle diversity study, they found results that surprised them or were contrary to the textbook predictions; students then had to dig deeper to try to figure out what else might be influencing the data.

Paul says that he enjoyed the process and the assignment was well received by most of his students. “They struggled with the data, but that was the point, they struggled just enough to actually learn. When they gave their presentations at the end, I wanted to stand up and cheer, because it worked. They got it.”

Interested in using data from the NEON project with your students?

Check out these great resources:

  • Teaching Modules: Lesson outlines, curated datasets and data skills activities to teach essential data skills and ecological concepts.
  • NEON Resources on QUBESHUB: Open-source resources produced by the NEON Data Education Fellows Faculty Mentoring Networks or contributed by other educators.  
  • Data Tutorials: Self-paced tutorials for use as standalone help on a single topic or as a series to learn new data techniques.
  • K-12 Activities: Hands-on activities to support teaching concepts such as change over time and space, analyzing patterns and relationships between organisms and their habitats.
  • Citizen Science Activities: Citizen science projects appropriate for all ages on a range of ecological topics.

Article written by Katy Delaney (, 614-424-7208), Battelle Media Relations Director on July 17, 2019

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