Environmental Science and Biocomplexity

Environmental Science and Biocomplexity engages students in understanding the complex fabric of relationships between humans and the environment and the land- and resource-use challenges increasingly confronting society. It provides an excellent capstone experience for 11th and 12th grade students when used as an individual replacement module, a semester course, or a year-long intensive series of four curriculum units.

Biocomplexity is inquiry based.
The curriculum consists of authentic, inquiry-based field and lab investigations designed around cases in urban, agricultural, tropical, and polar systems. It builds on ecology, environmental science, human ecology, geography, economics, and anthropology.

Biocomplexity aligns with the Framework for the Next Generation Science Standards.
Because of its strong emphasis on science practices, disciplinary content, and cross-cutting concepts, the curriculum is very well aligned with the Framework for the Next Generation Science Standards. Students address environmental land-use challenges, choosing solutions and providing arguments and evidence to defend their choices. They model relationships among components in systems and use their models to make predictions.

Biocomplexity is meaningful to students’ lives.
Understanding the nature of the complex relationships between humans and the environment is vital and important for all citizens in an era of global human impact on the environment. This curriculum helps students acquire a biocomplex way of thinking; and with an increased knowledge of how Earth systems work, students can use biocomplexity science to make a positive difference in their environments.


Urban Ecology Unit

Students develop ecosystem literacy at the local scale of their familiar schoolyard ecosystem. They make a land use decision regarding the addition of an athletic field to the school grounds and investigate how land use impacts hydrology, nitrogen flux, biotic factors, social factors, and ecosystem services. They build a case for their chosen land use decision by constructing evidence-based arguments that take impacts, ecosystem services and social factors into account.

Sprawl Unit

Students explore the impact of habitat fragmentation on biodiversity as they consider the proposed conversion of farmland to a suburban housing development. They map landscape elements and investigate biodiversity, social factors, fluxes of carbon, the economics and role of commodity subsidies, and the impact of green design. They debate land use alternatives and build a coherent scientific case to support their chosen land use plan for an abandoned farm.

Amazonia Unit

Students explore connections between the agricultural and grazing practices currently responsible for large-scale deforestation in Amazonia, and local, regional, and global climate. They investigate the role of rainforest in regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall. They analyze patterns of Amazonian deforestation and habitat fragmentation, analyze the economic ecology of soybean production, cattle ranching and forestry land uses, and conduct a stakeholder analysis. Finally, student teams prepare a plan for a small region of Amazonia, juggling types of land use to optimize critical factors such as biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, economic benefits and viable agriculture.

Arctic Unit

Since habitat disruption due to climate change is at its most dramatic in the Arctic, many species are showing signs of rapid impacts. Students explore impacts on the Arctic biota that result from changes related to local warming. They investigate abiotic changes due to fluxes of heat energy in the Arctic. They learn about population dynamics, conservation biology, adaptation and natural selection to understand the УoptionsФ available to Arctic species. Building on data about already occurring changes, they forecast what is likely to happen to selected Arctic species as the climate continues to change, and make a case for appropriate conservation strategies for these species.


Dr. Gillian Puttick

Dr. Gillian Puttick's career began with her first snorkeling trip, soon after graduating from college, when she saw starfish, sea urchins and soft corals for the first time. She knew before she got out of the cold Atlantic waters in Cape Town that she would go straight to graduate school to become an ecologist. Her doctorate from the University of Cape Town followed the feeding behavior of curlew sandpipers on the Cape mudflats as they fattened up for their 10,000 km journey to Siberia to breed. As a post-doctoral scientist, she broadened her studies to include the chemical “arms race” between insects and their foodplants. Seeing the pivotal importance of education, she began to work in education research in 1991. Using an inquiry-based philosophy, she has brought fresh scientific discoveries to formal and informal settings through designing, developing and testing curriculum, programs and activities for students and teachers. She has directed many federally funded education projects, notably Biocomplexity, and now focuses all her efforts on climate change education.

Brian Drayton

Brian Drayton's undergraduate degree in linguistics at Harvard was a fall-back, after he'd proposed an independent “major" which would consist of a study of the sociology and ecology of Georgetown Island, Maine, his childhood home — showing an early interest in how human and nonhuman organisms live together in a small space, like an island, or our island Earth. After post-graduate study in linguistics (later followed by a Ph.D. from Boston University in plant ecology), he followed a circuitous path to TERC in 1986. His fascination with how people learn, and his excitement about science, have kept him there ever since. His career has included a range of work, including: curriculum development in physical science and life sciences, especially ecology; research on inquiry in science teaching and learning; research and development on electronic communities; and climate change education.

Jeff Lockwood

TERC, Cambridge, MA

Jeff Lockwood taught high-school Earth science, physics, and astronomy for 28 years and is currently a project director and curriculum developer at TERC in Cambridge, MA.

Marlene Cole

US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Marlene is a landscape ecologist with a master’s from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University. Her research has focused on understanding species interactions and interdependencies across landscapes. Her work has included regional planning for conservation and the development of restoration and habitat mitigation designs, including reducing the impacts of renewable energy on wildlife and habitat. She has performed ecological assessments across a wide range of ecosystems, from deserts to forests to marine areas, and spanning wilderness to urban landscapes. In addition to her extensive work for TERC on this curriculum, she also designed and taught a course on environmental biology at Boston College and has taught or lectured on a range of science-based topics at several other institutions. She served as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the US Environmental Protection Agency where she helped develop science-based tools and materials for understanding and creating resilient cities and ecosystems. She currently serves as Climate Change Specialist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service where she helps apply climate adaptation thinking to critical mission areas like food security, ecological conservation, and the spread and control of pests, disease, and invasive species.

Meaghan Donovan

Wild Farm Alliance

Meaghan Donovan is an experienced educational materials developer with a background in plant science, sustainable agriculture and museum education. While at TERC—a not-for-profit math and science education company in Cambridge, Massachusetts—she developed science curricula and after-school programs for youth. She also worked as a science educator at the Museum of Science in Boston. She currently serves as the program and communications manager at Wild Farm Alliance, a not-for-profit sustainable-agriculture/conservation organization based in Watsonville, California. Her responsibilities include contributing to the development of educational resources used by farmers and conservationists, as well as assisting farmers and ranchers in restoring native habitat on their land. She earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Cornell University and a master’s degree from the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Alan Berkowitz

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY

Dr. Alan R. Berkowitz fell in love with trees as a child along the Wissahickon Creek in the wilds of Philadelphia, and with teaching about the environment as a naturalist at the Grand Canyon. He built the foundation for his career as an ecology educator with a BA in environmental studies from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, in 1976 and a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Cornell University in 1986. His job as Head of Education at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY has given him the incredible opportunity to bring cutting edge science to ecology education programs for children, college students, teachers and adults since 1985. Emphasizing place-based learning, his work has championed teaching and learning about schoolyards, neighborhoods, cities, streams, the Hudson River and forests as ecosystems. Dr. Berkowitz leads the Education Team for the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a Long Term Ecological Research project studying and teaching about the Baltimore ecosystem, and has directed the Cary Institute’s research program for undergraduates for the past 27 years. Dr. Berkowitz was the first Vice President for Education and Human Resources of the Ecological Society of America (ESA, 1995-2000) and received the Eugene P. Odum Award for Excellence in Ecology Education from ESA in 2003.