Students’ Reasoning about the Future of Disturbed or Protected Ecosystems & the Idea of the ‘Balance of Nature’

Abstract

This paper is part of a larger study that aims at highlighting students’ interpretations of the idea of the ‘Balance of Nature’, as well as its use in their reasoning about the future of an ecosystem, in order to subsequently develop a learning environment that might promote a reconsideration of its validity and usefulness. Our focus here is particularly set on whether and how non biology-major students use this idea when making predictions about (a) the future of an ecosystem that is supposed to have suffered a human-driven disturbance, and (b) the future of an ecosystem that is supposed to be protected against such disturbances. Administering a questionnaire of 12 items - 4 of which concern us here - to 61 1st-year educational sciences students at the University of Patras, we traced - among others - their reasoning about (a) the future of three ecosystems (forest, sea, lake), supposed to have suffered different human-driven disturbances (fire, oil spill, new population introduction), and (b) the future of a protected forest ecosystem of a national park. According to our findings, most of the students found it very likely for a disturbed ecosystem to fully recover its initial state - mainly due to a ‘recovery process’ or inherent ‘recovery mechanisms’ - showing a strong belief in an extremely resilient ‘Balance of Nature’. Moreover, most of them appeared to believe that if human-protected, an ecosystem will be in a continuous ‘balance’, while very few were skeptical enough to claim a non-predictable future for it.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank very much the students of the ‘Department of Educational Sciences and Early Childhood Education’ of the University of Patras, who volunteered to take part in this study.

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Correspondence to Marida Ergazaki.

Appendix: The Questionnaire

Appendix: The Questionnaire

Part A

  1. QA1:

    What do you think that is meant by the phrase the ‘Balance of Nature’? Please, explain as much as you can.

  2. QA2:

    How do you think that the ‘Balance of Nature’ emerges? In other words, what are the factors that lead to the ‘Balance of Nature’ according to you? Please, explain as much as you can.

Part B

  1. QB1:

    What do you think is meant by the phrase the ‘Balance of Nature’? Please, read the following statements and indicate the two that correspond the most to your own definition by writing number ‘1’ next to your first choice and number ‘2’ next to your second one.

    • Recycling: continuous availability of nutrients

    • Good functioning of the food chain: continuous availability of food

    • Harmonious co-existence of the organisms

    • Balanced prey-predator relationships

    • Almost equal birth and death rates in a population

    • Maintenance of the size of different populations within limits

    • Possibility of the return of the ecosystem to its initial state after a disturbance

  2. QB2:

    How do you think that the ‘Balance of Nature’ emerges? In other words, which factors do you think lead to the ‘Balance of Nature’? Please, read the following statements and indicate the two that correspond the most to your own explanation about how the ‘Balance of Nature’ emerges by writing number ‘1’ next to your first choice and number ‘2’ next to your second one.

    • Nature

    • God

    • Absence of disturbance

    • Relationships between the organisms

    • Relationships between the organisms and their environment

    • Mechanisms that ensure the return of the ecosystem to its initial state after a disturbance

Part C

  1. QC1:

    ‘The ecosystems reach balance when there are not any human interventions such as i.e. agricultural activities or urban sprawl’. This is valid:

    (A) Always (B) Usually (C) Sometimes (D) Rarely (E) Never

  1. QC2:

    ‘The ecosystems return to balance when the human interventions that caused the disturbance of the balance stop’. This is valid:

    (A) Always (B) Usually (C) Sometimes (D) Rarely (E) Never

  2. QC3:

    ‘The ecosystems reach balance when there are no any environmental disturbances such as i.e. drought or floods’. This is valid:

    (A) Always (B) Usually (C) Sometimes (D) Rarely (E) Never

  3. QC4:

    The ecosystems return to balance when the environmental disturbances that caused the disturbance of the balance stop’. This is valid:

    (A) Always (B) Usually (C) Sometimes (D) Rarely (E) Never

Part D

  1. QD1

    (‘Forest fire’ scenario): Suppose that a certain forest hosts plant populations of pines, fir trees, myrtles, poppies and lavenders, and animal populations of deer, hedgehogs, squirrels, owls, snails and insects. This forest suffers a fire that destroys everything. After this, the forest is left on its own. How do you think it will look like some years later compared to how it initially did according to the given description?

  2. QD2

    (‘Oil spill’ scenario): Suppose that an oil tanker sinks in the Baltic Sea and a huge amount of oil is released. The oil spill spreads in a sea area that hosts many different populations of phytoplankton (microscopic plants of various species) and zooplankton (microscopic animals of various species), small fishes (sardines & herrings), big fishes (tunas & salmons), and sea birds (seagulls & cormorants). This results in a decrease of these populations’ size. Sometime later, the oil spill is totally removed from the sea area. How do you think this sea area will look like some years later compared to how it initially did according to the given description?

  3. QD3

    (‘New fish’ scenario): Suppose that a certain lake, which is situated near a small city, hosts populations of phytoplankton and zooplankton (microscopic plants and animals of various species), plants (water-lilies & canes), fishes (pilchards & trout) and birds (ducks & cranes). The city council decides to add in this lake a new fish population with commercial value (cyprinids). The introduction of this new fish population changes the situation within the lake: some populations decrease and some others increase in size. Sometime later, the new fish population is attacked by a virus which is lethal only for this, while it is completely harmless for all the other populations in the lake. As a consequence, the new fish population dies off. How do you think this lake will look some years later compared to how it initially did according to the given description?

  4. QD4

    (‘National park’ scenario): A ‘national park’ - namely a totally protected area where special guards make sure that no human activity takes place - hosts plant populations of pines, fir trees and oak trees, as well as animal populations of deer, ferrets, bears, eagles, hawks, snakes, and turtles. The populations’ sizes are regularly monitored by the scientific team of the park, which studies their course in time. How do you think this human-protected area will look some years later compared to how it initially did according to the given description?

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Ergazaki, M., Ampatzidis, G. Students’ Reasoning about the Future of Disturbed or Protected Ecosystems & the Idea of the ‘Balance of Nature’. Res Sci Educ 42, 511–530 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-011-9208-7

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Keywords

  • ‘Balance of Nature’
  • Humans and ‘Balance of Nature’
  • Students’ reasoning about nature
  • Students’ predictions about ecosystems