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Researchers find value in using literature to teach science

| Judy Berthiaume

When Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff first read “Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations” several years ago, she knew immediately that she wanted to share the book with her conservation biology students.

The book, which the UW-Eau Claire biology professor describes as a biography and travelogue, is a series of stories highlighting international conservation efforts, stories that take readers on journeys near and far, from the great plains in the U.S. to the faraway jungles in Nepal, in search of threatened and endangered species.

Throughout the years, Kleintjes Neff has introduced literature into her classes in addition to the more typical approach of a textbook and scientific papers. The conservation topics in this book aligned particularly well with her course’s content.

“At first, students are skeptical about having to read a book for a biology class,” Kleintjes Neff said. “But soon after reading the first chapter of “Tigerland,” many stated that they were so captivated they couldn’t put it down. Eric Dinerstein is an engaging author.”


Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff uses a variety of teaching strategies to help her conservation biology students learn, ranging from field experiences to reading literature.

She noticed that the book helped her students better connect with class materials, reinforcing biological concepts and field research methods she covered in class, Kleintjes Neff said, adding that the book also introduced students to a variety of new species and the threats that put them at risk.

“Through the book, they vicariously traveled and engaged in international conservation and adventure, which they connected back to their class activities and personal aspirations,” Kleintjes Neff said. “Students were awed and empowered by the inspirational role models and heroic acts of conservation Dinerstein described.

“Discussions were lively and students were not only inspired to internationally travel and do field research, but also to engage in local conservation and make an individual difference.”

Simply put, the book had an even greater impact on her students than she ever expected.

Nicole Weiss was among the students who were awed and empowered by the stories she read.

A 2015 UW-Eau Claire biology graduate, Weiss read “Tigerland” while part of Kleintjes Neff’s class, a course she says she enjoyed immensely because of the book discussions.

“I am an anthropologist, so I study people — their biology and their culture — and it was exciting for me to read about conservation efforts around the world in ‘Tigerland,’” said Weiss, who now is a University Fellow at The Ohio State University, where she just completed her master's and will start work on her doctorate in the fall. “Pretty much every culture values life and nature in some form, and because of this, the protection of threatened and endangered species brings together scientists from very diverse backgrounds. There is something mesmerizing to me about how conservation biology is a common language. We have one goal: to save these species.”

After three years of observing students like Weiss responding so enthusiastically to the book, Kleintjes Neff knew this innovative teaching strategy — using nonfiction literature as part of her conservation biology curriculum — was making a difference for her students.

“At some point during my grading of the reports, I thought ‘This is really working, the students are learning and love it, I should share this with conservation biology educators and practitioners,’” Kleintjes Neff said.

She quickly recruited six Blugolds — including Weiss — who had read the book to be research collaborators and co-authors. They also sought advice from CETL.

A paper highlighting the research team’s findings, titled “Using nonfiction scientific literature for conservation biology education: The 'Tigerland' effect,” was published this month in the international journal Applied Environmental Education & Communication.

Through their analysis, the researchers identified specific ways that “Tigerland” enhanced student learning and conservation literacy.

They found that favorite topics chosen by students mostly fell into three categories, including:

  • Their biological association with a species and/or a biological concept covered in class.
  • The potential of visiting a unique or previously unknown foreign location and engaging in an adventurous experience.
  • Inspirational role models or conservation actions of human patience, diplomacy or courage.

They also found that students’ vocabulary grew as they read terms within the context of the book. For example, in the review of 63 student papers, nearly 450 new words were identified, with “bivouac” as the top pick.

“I saw the students themselves becoming better writers and exploring their creative abilities in new ways,” Kleintjes Neff said. “Initially, I was somewhat taken aback by their lack of vocabulary and sense of global geography. It was rewarding to observe their improvement.”

Not only did the students learn more about the science of conserving biological diversity and potential career paths, but they also learned to value other cultures, diplomacy and the need for local and multidisciplinary collaboration and engagement in conservation, Kleintjes Neff said, adding that the research team also discovered bats and locations such as New Caledonia fascinated students.

Having their findings published is important because while the benefits of using literacy activities such as reading, writing and interactive discussion of scientific concepts to promote scientific understanding are well documented for K–12 education, little research exists on the impact those strategies have in university science classrooms, Kleintjes Neff said.

Weiss said she learned a lot of research methodology through the project, and is excited to see her work published in a professional journal.

“As scientists we want to publish our work so that it can be accessed by others who might find it useful,” said Weiss. “In the case of our article, we hope that it may inspire other conservation biology instructors to use this book in their course. We found it effective in engaging students, and our goal is to increase student engagement so that we can better train conservation biologists. If we can attract and maintain more students, we have a better chance of solving more conservation issues in the world.”

Kleintjes Neff agrees, noting that she hopes more of her UW-Eau Claire colleagues will find ways to share innovative teaching strategies that are working for them in their own classrooms.

After all, she says, faculty put so much time and energy into their teaching that it makes sense to embed research and engage students in pedagogical scholarship, when possible.

Top photo caption: Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff has found that "Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations" has helped her students better connect with class materials, reinforcing biological concepts and field research methods.