Distributed Graduate Seminars

Distributed learning provides a training model in which resources and instruction are independent of time and place. NCEAS' Distributed Graduate Seminars (DGS) combine elements of traditional and distributed learning and build on the collaborative approach that is a hallmark of NCEAS' research. These integrated, multi-campus graduate seminars are designed to engage students in ecological analysis and synthesis.

 What Are Distributed Graduate Seminars
Articles About NCEAS DGS
Developing Curricula and Model Systems for Sustainability Science
A Graduate Seminar Network to Facilitate Synthetic Research on
Context-dependency in Mycorrhizal Symbiosis

Engaging Undergraduate Students in Ecological Investigations Using Large, Public Datasets
Landscape Genetics: Developing Best Practices for Testing Landscape Effects on Gene Flow
Finding Common Ground in Marine Conservation and Management
The Role of Marine Protected Areas in Ecosystem-based Management: Examining the Science and
Politics of an Ocean Conservation Strategy

Past Distributed Graduate Seminars


What Are Distributed Graduate Seminars?

a large group of graduate students and other researchers pose together in the courtyard outside the research center

The concept of a distributed graduate research project at NCEAS emerged directly out of NCEAS Working Groups’ activities. Working Groups which incorporated graduate students had resulted in multiple publications with both faculty and graduate students participating as first authors, attention from national and local media, and data resources that are accessible via the NCEAS Data Repository.

graphical representation of the structure of Distributed Graduate Seminars, with NCEAS as the hub for data exchange and infrastructure to allow collaboration between students from all over the U.S.

In 2006, NCEAS sponsored its first independent DGS, with a goal of supporting two DGS a year. In order to secure sponsorship, Principal Investigators propose a research question with data needs too large for one group to tackle independently. To carry out the DGS, faculty members at participating universities conduct seminars that address this question. Graduate students participating in the individual seminars use previously existing local or regional data, learning to assemble, synthesize and analyze the data using ecoinformatics tools. At the end of the seminar, faculty leaders and two students from each university come to NCEAS to participate in a cross-site analysis and synthesis, comparing patterns and results from the various locations.

DGS provide students with valuable experience in collaborative research, as well as training in available techniques and tools to acquire, manage, and synthesize multi-scale data. DGS also demonstrate to the next generation of investigators the importance of shared data and benefits of its availability, as well as the significant role of ecological synthesis in the process of scientific discovery.

Faculty leaders benefit from the opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues at widely distributed universities while engaging in meaningful and creative pedagogy at their home institutions.

Recent DGS Awarded

Developing Curricula and Model Systems for Sustainability Science



Cavender-Bares, Jeannine
Polasky, Stephen


Sustaining the systems that support life while meeting human needs represents one of the greatest challenges that we face in the 21st century. Sustainability science is a use-inspired science aimed at addressing this challenge. We propose a two-year distributed graduate seminar across six institutions to address core concepts in sustainability science and to develop model systems for advancement of theory and tools for sustainable management. The collaboration will benefit from interaction and synthesis across institutions and disciplines, the hallmark of NCEAS, and from the technical, data management and cyber-support that NCEAS can provide. Four key outcomes include:

1) A curriculum and publically accessible wiki for sustainability science to provide a pedagogic foundation for the emerging field;
2) The development of model systems for sustainability science to promote rapid advances;
3) A synthesis of key insights from applying a sustainability science framework to these model systems; and
4) A series of team case studies including inclusive valuation of shifts in land-use and restoration to aid decision making.

Participating Institutions

Arizona State University
Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosystemas (CIEco), UNAM, Mexico
Florida International University
Harvard University
Princeton University
University of Minnesota
Cornell University


Project: 2010-2012

A Graduate Seminar Network to Facilitate Synthetic Research on
Context-dependency in Mycorrhizal Symbiosis


Hoeksema, Jason
Bever, James

Mycorrhizal symbioses, in which plants exchange carbohydrates for nutrients with root associated fungal symbionts, are classically considered a mutualism. But they can display a high degree of variability in ecological outcomes ranging from mutualism to parasitism. Given the ubiquity and importance of this interaction, understanding the controls on its variability is paramount for basic and applied ecology. One centerpiece activity of a previous NCEAS working group (“Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice in Mycorrhizal Management,” 2005-2007) was to initiate an effort to understand this ecological variability through an empirical synthesis of mycorrhizal inoculation experiments. As part of that effort, we created a database of nearly 2000 such experiments, and developed innovative new methods for multi-factor meta-analysis to assess the relative importance of numerous biotic and abiotic factors hypothesized to explain variation among experiments in plant responses to mycorrhizal inoculation. Although important insights were gained from that analysis, it revealed limitations of the approach which prevented full exploitation of that effort. Through the NCEAS distributed graduate network project proposed here, we plan to address these limitations to answer fundamental questions about context-dependency in mycorrhizal symbiosis. In this process, graduate students will be trained in mycorrhizal ecology, data management/ecoinformatics, and statistical meta-analysis, and will have the opportunity to take the lead in meaningful synthetic, ecological science. NCEAS will provide necessary logistical support, staff support, and funding for planning and face-to-face collaboration, without which this project would not be possible.

Participating Universities

Indiana University
Montana State University
New Mexico State University
Northern Arizona University
Oklahoma State University
Pennsylvania State University
University of British Columbia (Okanagan)
University of Mississippi
University of North Carolina              

 Project: 2010

Engaging Undergraduate Students in Ecological Investigations Using Large, Public Datasets 



Mourad, Teresa
Gram, Wendy K.
Grant, Bruce

Press Release

Collaborative website for the group


With easy access to large-volume public datasets now commonplace, high-quality data are available to investigate many ecological questions and issues of interest to scientists, policymakers, and citizens. Many people, however, do not have the experience or skills to search, use, analyze and interpret these data. The Ecological Society of America (ESA), in close partnership with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), will facilitate a Distributed Graduate Seminar to focus on examining effective student activities and assessment strategies for using large public datasets in the classroom.

This seminar builds on a preliminary education framework generated at a 2008 ESA faculty workshop, organized to make recommendations to NEON as they developed their education and outreach plan. The new seminar will be instrumental in refining this education framework. Faculty participants at the Summerr 2009 seminar designed undergraduate teaching modules focused on topics such as climate change and polar bears, patterns in bird diversity, and the carbon cycle. Developed with current learning theory in mind, they emphasize student active-teaching methodologies that are inquiry-based and participatory.The modules will be revised over the next year, implemented with students, and assessed. These key issues will be considered in developing assessment tools:

(1) misconceptions and anxieties that students bring into the classroom related to data manipulation and interpretation
(2) developmental stages of student mastery of critical concepts needed to work with large datasets, and
(3) types of assessments that will authentically measure students' learning progress

The group will reconvene in late 2010, along with two undergraduate students from each institution, to synthesize their experiences and discuss ways to promote use of data-based experiences in undergraduate science courses. We anticipate that the synthesis and results will be submitted for publication and that the set of teaching activities will be published online by ESA.

 The teaching activities will provide undergraduate students the means to better understand ecological concepts, and to gain experience in effectively applying quantitative skills to the analysis and interpretation of large-volume datasets. Gaining fundamentally critical, quantitative ecoinformatics skills will position students well as demand for a data-savvy workforce grows steadily in the 21st century.

The project will also prepare faculty at minority-serving and small undergraduate institutions in the basics of good ecoinformatics practices, enabling them to seize opportunities that will present themselves when data from observatories such as NEON, rich with biotic data, come online.

New teaching tools require assessment strategies. The new teaching activities will be evaluated for their effectiveness in the undergraduate classroom.

Participating Institutions

Alcorn State University
Brown University
Clarkson University
Diné College
Ecological Society of America
Hampton University
National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)
New College of Florida
Swarthmore College
University of Puerto Rico
Widener University

Seminar: Summer 2009    Project: 2009-2010

Landscape Genetics: Developing Best Practices for Testing Landscape Effects on Gene Flow 



Wagner, Helene
Waits, Lisette


photo of a marsh, with a variety of reeds, trees and other plants A key objective of landscape genetics is to study how landscape modification and habitat fragmentation affect organism dispersal and gene flow across the landscape. Landscape genetics requires highly interdisciplinary, yet specialized professionals, and makes intensive use of spatial analysis tools such as remote sensing, GIS software and spatial statistics that have not historically been a component of training programs for population geneticists. Even when students receive disciplinary training in several of the involved fields of landscape genetics, educational programs lack the necessary linkage and synthesis among disciplines. This linkage can only be accomplished after experts from each discipline work together to develop guiding principles for this new research area.

This distributed graduate seminar is designed to unite some of the most active landscape genetics groups in North America and Europe. It will draw on the experience of experts both in population genetics and landscape ecology with the goal of providing an integrated overview of approaches for testing the effect of landscape pattern on dispersal and gene flow, a key topic of landscape genetics.

Each seminar will start with a video-taped lecture that introduces foundations and methods and highlights points for discussion in local seminar groups. Practical experience applying various methods to selected cases studies will be provided through a combination of computer labs, interpretation of sample output, and paper discussions. Student groups across universities will focus on a specific step in the data collection and analysis process, evaluating the consequences of different choices of methods and deriving recommendations when to use which method, with each group project leading to a scientific publication. The main goal of the synthesis meeting is to discuss how consequences of methodological choices propagate to later steps in the analysis, leading to a joint publication of best practices for testing landscape effects on gene flow.

Participating Institutions

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH
Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL
Universite Joseph Fourier, France
University of Alaska, Southeast
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Idaho
University of Montana 
USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station
Seminar: Spring 2009    Project 2008-2010

Finding Common Ground in Marine Conservation and Management


Hilborn, Ray
Worm, Boris
Hampton, Stephanie 


Rebuilding Global Fisheries
Boris Worm et al.
Science 325(5940) 578 - 585
Rebuilding Fisheries Website


There is increasing concern among scientists, resource managers, and the general public about the current state of marine fisheries and their supporting ecosystems. Recent scientific progress on this topic has been partly overshadowed by significant controversy about how to assess marine resources and how to address current problems in ocean management. Marine ecologists and fisheries scientists often tend to favor contrasting approaches, and these schools of thought have become polarized over time.

Recognizeing this situation as counterproductive, an NCEAS Working Group is engaged both in defining common ground among marine ecologists and fisheries scientists and, for focusing future research, in identifying areas of continued disagreement. The central question being addressed is: how can we merge contrasting objectives, tools, and scientific criteria among marine ecology, fisheries science, and management into a unifying framework.

One of the solutions to polarization is to expose young scientists to the goals and approaches of the various interested parties dealing with these issues.  NCEAS, with the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will coordinate such an effort by offering a Distributed Graduate Seminar (DGS) that will involve graduate students and mentors from six universities in the research process.

Participating Universities

Dalhousie University
Simon Fraser University
Stanford University
University of New Hampshire
University of Patagonia, Puerto Madryn
University of Washington

Seminar, Project: Spring 2009 

The Role of Marine Protected Areas in Ecosystem-based Management: Examining the Science and Politics of an Ocean Conservation Strategy 



Pavia, Robert 
Lindholm, James


sunlight beams through the water onto a tropical coral reef, which is surrounded by a variety of colorful juvenile and small adult reef fishRecent reports by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission recommend specific actions necessary to drive advances in ocean governance, including the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) as tools for ecosystem-based management. With coastal development, pollution, and resource extraction pressures on MPAs increasing, national and international efforts are focusing on developing MPAs in the context of the ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine, in which they occur. We will conduct a Distributed Graduate Seminar dedicated to clarifying the role of MPAs as tools for ecosystem-based management. The National Marine Sanctuary Program, one of the primary MPA management programs in U.S. Federal waters, will serve as a vehicle for this exploration. Graduate students from Hawaii to New Hampshire will examine how our growing scientific understanding of ecosystem processes within MPAs, and evolving ocean-observing capabilities, can allow us to manage MPAs as integral components of the ecosystems in which they reside.

Participating Institutions

California State University, Monterey Bay
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology/University of Hawaii
University of California at Santa Barbara
University of Michigan
University of New Hampshire
University of Rhode Island
University of South Florida
University of Washington

Seminar: Summer-Fall 2008     Project 2007-2009

Past Distributed Graduate Seminars: Participants, Data and Results

Ushering in a New Era of Functional Ecology:  Dynamics in a Changing Environment

Biodiversity, Conservation and Ecosystem Services in Managed Landscapes

Ecosystem-based Management

Economic Impact of Non-native Forest Pests and Pathogens in North America

Habitat Conservation Planning for Endangered Species

A Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity

Prospectus for an Analysis of Recovery Plans and Delisting

Articles about NCEAS DGS

Andelman, S.J., C.M Bowles, M.R. Willig and R.B. Waide. 2004. Understanding environmental complexity through a distributed knowledge network. BioScience 54(3):240-246. 

Boersma, P. Dee and DeWeerdt, Sarah. 2001. Tapping the ivory tower; how academic-agency partnerships can advance conservation. Conservation Biology in Practice 2(3): 28-32.

Savage, Lisa T. 1998. Innovative national graduate student seminar analyzes habitat conservation plans. Integrative Biology: Issues, News and Reviews 1(2): Pages 45-48.