From the Universe to the Duck Pond:

Discovering Patterns and Processes in Natural Systems

| Western Program | Miami University

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General Description of Natural Systems I (WCP 121/123)

This course is an integrated introduction to concepts and methods of the natural sciences through lectures, laboratories, field work and seminars. Fundamental methods, conceptual and quantitative skills needed for understanding the organization and operation of various ecosystems are explored. Emphasizing patterns and processes in natural systems, the course explores basic tenets of such fields as physics, chemistry, geology and biology to underscore common systems of logic that are shared. Student skills in quantitative reasoning are a feature of this course; these may include descriptive and univariate statistics, experimental design, development and analysis of a database, scales of measurement, unit conversions, significant figures, scientific notation, and construction of basic mathematical models. Discovery-oriented learning featuring a hands-on approach to laboratories and fieldwork characterize the course. Student involvement in experimental design is maximized, utilizing local aquatic and terrestrial systems. Critical thought is engaged by addressing alternative hypotheses and learning to use differing methodologies and data collection strategies. Written reports and oral presentations aid in developing perspectives on the environment and society. This course introduces both biological and physical sciences.

Specific Description for Fall 1999:

From the Universe to the Duck Pond:

Discovering Patterns and Processes in Natural Systems


Dr. Hays Cummins
  • 222 Boyd Hall
  • Office: 9-1338
  • Office Hours: 2-4 MW, F 9-11
Dr. Chris Myers
  • 104 Peabody & 202 Boyd Hall
  • Office: 9-5664
  • Office Hrs: 1-3 M, 3-5 W
Dr. Nancy Nicholson
  • 218 Boyd Hall
  • Office: 9-5667
  • Office Hours: 10-12W, 2-4T
Elizabeth Zinn
  • TBA, Boyd Hall
  • Office: 9-5811
  • Office Hours: TBA

Natural Systems Course Schedule

Lectures 100-1:50, Wed/ Lab & Discussions, TR-Boyd Hall

Section Time Professor
A 8-9:50 Cummins
B 9-10:50 Nicholson
C 12-1:50 Myers
D 1-2:50 Zinn
E 2-3:50 Nicholson
F 3-4:50 Cummins
G 4-5:50 Myers

Table of Contents

Specifc Course Topics, Assignments and Due Dates
Research Projects and Lab Reports
Other Resources
Grading Scale& Assignments
Student Generated Labs & Natural Systems Database
Library Resources
SYLLABUS: Module 1-The Nature of Science
Guidelines for Student Generated Labs
WWW Search Engines
SYLLABUS:Module2-From the Universe to Planet Earth
The Web Forum-Student Research Feedback& Progress Reports
"In-House" Ecology Database Search Engine
SYLLABUS: Modules 3&4
Instructor Generated Lab Report Format
Science Journals & Ohio Link

Course Description

In the present, and for the foreseeable future, science is the most pervasive philosophy of inquiry through which we endeavor to understand our world, yet there is little agreement on what science really is. We begin this course with a discussion of the nature of science. Next, we explore the process of scientific discovery of the universe, covering basic principles in astronomy and planetary geology. Then, we focus on biological and geological systems on earth: their history of change and their current condition.

At the heart of this course is the idea that science is best learned by doing science, as well as by critical reflection on the work of others. Most scholars regardless of their area of academic interest agree that intellectual excitement and stimulation come not from the passive acceptance of information transmitted from the teacher to the student in the classroom, but rather through the active involvement of the individual in the learning process. Quite simply, we learn by doing. Many of the course activities will underscore personal discovery-oriented participation in the learning process--this includes the interpretation of data obtained in the field as well as writing reports and participating in class presentations. This is a field course. The first half of the field experiences will be instructor generated. The laboratories for the rest of the course will be up to you! You will be responsible for developing labs that your classmates will do.

We hope that when the course is completed you will have a firm understanding of scientific method regardless of your academic focus. This course meets the Miami Plan Foundation IV-Biology and lab science requirement.

Natural Systems 1 Instructor Generated Discovery Lab Reports

For group lab projects, the class will be divided into about groups of 5 indiv./group. Each member of a team is expected give 100% to the effort.

No assignments will be accepted by the instructors past any deadline.

During the semester, you will be responsible for 4 Instructor Generated Discovery Labs. Each lab will require a two page, type written, double-spaced report due on the appropriate dates listed on the syllabus. Assistance on the format can be obtained from the Peer Science Center, the Writing Center, or your instructors. All lab notebook write-ups are to be by each individual, not the group. The format listed below is recommended.

1. Introduction (a paragraph or two)

2. Materials and Methods (brief and to the point)

3. Results (no more-no less)

4. Questions

5. Discussion (parsimony as well as an aesthetic response is expected)

Student Generated Labs and the Natural Sciences Database

In the spirit of discovery-oriented science, a segment of the NS I labs will be devoted to allowing students to ask their own questions, design methods, write their own text, run their own lab, analyze the data, and present the results.

We will use the Western Duck Pond, the woods behind Peabody, and a site in Pfeffer park as model aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Each lab will be divided into four teaching groups. As an out-of-class assignment, each group will choose a question about natural patterns and/or processes at one of the sites, research literature relevant to their question, decide the best way to address the question given available time and resources, and write a laboratory. These laboratories will be collected and distributed for a peer review and discussion to take place the following week. The revised version of each Student-Generated Lab will be bound and titled the Discovery Lab Manual. This is the lab manual we will use for all subsequent labs. The authors of each lab will be responsible for teaching. They will need to provide data sheets and introductory material, oversee fellow students to make sure the procedures are executed properly, and make adjustments for unexpected events.

So, every student group can count on having, for one day, their entire lab section assisting them to gather data on their question of interest. Class time is valuable--students conducting labs are responsible for using their classmates' time effectively (e.g. steps should be taken before the lab to make certain the methods are feasible and efficient). Authors of each lab will then enter the data into a computer database, analyze the data statistically, interpret the results and, towards the end of the semester, give a presentation about the findings and turn in a final write-up.

Student groups interested in related questions are encouraged to share their findings to add new dimensions to their research. For example, a group investigating the spatial distribution of black oaks in Pfeffer park may benefit from a group working on soil nutrients, or from a group characterizing the topography of the study area. A grid may be established for the Duck Pond and Pfeffer park so that all the results can be related to a common, geographically referenced, database. This will facilitate groups who want to share data in a meaningful way.

Western students catch a snake on the first field trip to Peffer Park

The student-generated database will be continued from year to year, which will allow future classes access to previously collected data to augment their research interests. The result will be an evolving "Natural Science Database," which will provide the basis for progressively more in-depth and sophisticated analyses of the model aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. A student from the class of 1998, for example, may use the "Natural Science Database" to examine yearly changes in the pH of the duck pond as part of an investigation on acid rain. Peer Science tutors will assist student groups in formating their data for the Natural Science Database. A copy of the Discovery Lab Manual will be placed in the library so future classes can become familiar with what has gone before. For those students who wish to research Western Pond, here are maps of the pond's local watershed and bathymetry .

The Julia Rothermel Center for Science Inquiry

New to the Western Program is a Center for Science Discovery staffed by upperclass students with strong commitments to science. The overall goal of the center is to: 1) serve as an important resource for students thinking through research or pursuing independent investigations, 2) provide a living link between the Natural Science Database and ongoing student investigations, and 3) serve as a central hub for scientific equipment and supplies.

Each student group will work closely with an upperclass science tutor, who will provide advice and help coordinate data.

Guidelines for Student Generated Labs

Search The Science Center Equipment Database!!

Points to Consider:

WEB FORUM FOR THE NATURAL SYTEMS DISCOVERY PROJECTS: Visit Research Entry by week 4 to put your project ideas, etc. on the web. We will work together online. Students and instructors will provide ideas and critiques as the projects develop. You will also post Progrees Reports as the semester moves along.

Natural Systems 1, Fall '99, Discovery Lab Web Feedback and Database

Natural Systems 1, Fall '99, Entry Forms.......

Natural Systems, Discovery Project Submissions...

Natural Systems Progress Reports



View Progress Reports & new progress postings.....

The "Acid Lab" concentrated on the dissolution of limestone due to acid rain.

The "Lab Teaching Packet" and Final Report Format

Each "Lab Packet" should be a minimum of 5 pages long, plus references, research timeline, and data sheets. Your lab packet submission should be complete the first time you submit it, but be prepared for feedback from your peers, tutors and faculty which will result in further revision. Your final report should, of course, be much more complete than your "Lab Teaching Packet."

Title (with all authors)

1. Introduction

  1. Purpose/Problem. What is (are) your hypothesis(es)?
  2. How did you decide on this project? How did you decide upon your specific questions?
  3. What do you plan to accomplish?
  4. Relevance, if any. Why is this research interesting?

2. Relevance of your research question

  1. Literature Review--What have others done?
  2. How does your research relate to a larger question(s)? What contribution will your project hopefully be able to make to the broader base of human knowledge?

3. Materials and Methods

  1. What is your experimental design? Is it statistically sound? What are the reasons behind the different parts of your experimental design? Why are or aren't you doing certain things?
  2. Is your experimental design statistically sound? How do you know? Did you ask for advice?
    1. How will you ensure unbiased results?
    2. How will you ensure that the data collected by the class can be trusted? Will you show adequately demonstrate your data collection methods and the importance of consistency?
  3. Describe important materials and how they will be used.
  4. Describe other methods. How will you involve the class in your study? Be specific! Will the class be asked to process data? How?
  5. Have you included a Data Sheet?
  6. Include a specific timeline (your own and the class!) of research execution.

4. Results (To be included in your final report)

  1. Observations. Do you have preliminary results from work done to date? Include these initial results in this report.
  2. Think about how best to convey your findings. What types of statistics will be of use to you? Why?
    1. How will you best display your results? Graphs, tables? Think long and hard about this!
  3. Include statistical tests, tables (numerical data) and figures (graphs, drawings, etc.) when appropriate.

5. Discussion & Conclusions (For your final report!)

  1. Based on your background research, your own project, and analysis of the data, explain why you got the results you did.
  2. Think beyond the project. How does your work fit in with what others have done? What additional questions do you have?
  3. What suggestions do you have for further investigation?

6. Literature Cited

  1. Be sure to include an impressive suite of literature citations that directly relate to your study. This literature must include citations from the peer reviewed journals. World Wide Web citations are of secondary importance!

Here's a little boost in your search for a suitable topic!!

Books, Articles, Journals, Library Resources

The world's largest bookstore!

The Library of Congress

The Current Issue of Scientific American

Science Magazine

Other Library Resources

Download the Cross-platform ADOBE Acrobat Reader

Miami Link

Ohio Link Electronic Journals--Amazing Online Resource

Search the Ohio Link Journal Index

Earth & Planetary Sciences
Environmental Sciences
Physics & Astronomy
Life Sciences

Other Cool Library Stuff!

FIRST SEARCH   Biology Science Citation Index Applied Science & Technology    Environment and Ecology
AGRICCOLA   Geology    GEOBASE Life Sciences   General Periodicals  

Search Engines-Search Worldwide


Searching with WebCrawler(TM)


Lightning One August Evening in Oxford, Ohio

Search the Ecology WWW Database!

Got Mac OS X 10.2 or Higher?   Download Hays' Sherlock Channel

Try it, you'll like it!

Where do I start? This database is an ecologic database--look at it as an appendage to these web pages. From severe weather, to hurricanes, satellite imagery, computer modeling, climate change (el nino, greenhouse warming), evolution, origins, astronomy, paleontology, earth science resources, tropical ecosystems, biodiversity, marine ecology, herpetology, research feedback--it's all there (over 300,000 web pages!).

Enter some key words to search by:

Find pages with of these words and return results.

Document Summaries Search Phonetically Begins With Searching 

Search This Entire Web Site--Research Projects, etc.

Search the Database to Examine Previous Year's Projects, Progress Reports and Postings

Enter some key words to search by:

Find pages with of these words and return results.

Search Worldwide


Searching with WebCrawler(TM)


Grading Distribution

A picture of one NS class at the base of the "Bluffs" in Collins Run

Academic Honesty

Please read part V, Sections 501-507 of The Miami Student Handbook on Academic Dishonesty since the policy articulated pertains to all work done in this course.

Assignments & Points
Instructor-Generated Labs (4 reports@50 pts each) 200 pts
Discovery-Oriented Projects
Naturalist Essay (50 pts)
Peer Review (100 pts)
Class Participation (100 pts)
Exam I (short answer and essay) (100 pts)
Final Exam (short answer and essay) (200 pts)
Total Pts. 1400 pts

Participation: This course will be interactive; 3% will be subtracted from the final course grade for each absence without excuse. This includes absence from scheduled group meetings with science tutors. To receive a grade in this course, you must complete an end-of-course evaluation.

Quicktime Movie-The Creek Walk: Watch Alec as he is outfoxed by a Reptile!


A photocopied reader to be purchased at Oxford Copy Shop

Discovery Lab Manual (written by you)

Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? by David M. Raup. W.W. Norton and Company.

Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates across Millennia by Gregory Benford. Avon Books, Inc.

Geologic Time Scale

EON        | ERA      | PERIOD              | EPOCH      | DATES  | AGE of       | Interesting Biological Events:
Phanerozoic| Cenozoic | Quaternary          | Holocene   | 0-2    | Mammals      | Humans
            |           |                      |Pleistocene|         |               |
            |           |Tertiary| Neogene  | Pliocene   | 2-5    |               |
            |           |          |           |Miocene    | 5-24   |               |
            |           |          |Paleogene| Oligocene  | 24-37  |               |
            |           |          |           |Eocene     | 37-58  |               |
            |           |          |           |Paleocene  | 58-66  |               | Extinction of dinosaurs
            |Mesozoic  |Cretaceous                        | 66-144 | Reptiles     | Flowering plants
            |           |Jurassic                          | 144-208|               | 1st birds/mammals
            |           |Triassic                          | 208-245|               | First Dinosaurs
            |Paleozoic |Permian                           | 245-286| Amphibians   | End of trilobites
            |           |Carboniferous| Pennsylvanian     | 286-320|               | First reptiles
            |           |               |Mississippian     | 320-360|               | Large primitive trees
            |           |Devonian                          | 360-408| Fishes       | First amphibians
            |           |Silurian                          | 408-438|               | First land plant fossils
            |           |Ordovician                        | 438-505| Invertebrates| First Fish
            |           |Cambrian                          | 505-570|               | 1st shells, trilobites dominant
Proterozoic | Also known as Precambrian                     | 570-2,500              | 1st Multicelled organisms
Archean    |                                                | 2,500-3,800            | 1st one-celled organisms
Hadean     |                                                | 3,800-4,600            | Approx age of oldest rocks 3,800
Note: Dates are in millions of years

Taken from: MODERN PHYSICAL GEOLOGY, Graham R. Thompson Ph.D., Jonathan Turk Ph.D., Saunders College Publishing and the University of Alaska, Department of Geology.

Schedule of Lectures, Exams, Readings & Field Trips


Module 1-The Nature of Science

Students relax on huge boulders deposited at the base of the Bluffs during a recent storm.

Date Topic Readings
Week 1


  • Lecture: Introduction to the Course
  • Lab: Introduction
  • Lab, R- Field Trip to Pfeffer Park (Sneakers!!),Meet in front of Peabody/Naturalist Essay
  • Seeing the Familiar, R
  • Measuring Time, R
  • Thinking Like a Mountain, R
Week 2


  • Measurement and Statistical Methods, R
  • The Tree--Fowler, R
  • **Naturalist essay due
Week 3


  • Lecture: Making Sense of Data
  • Seminars: No Tues Lab (Mon/Tues. switch week)
  • Labs: Earth-Moon laboratory
    • Student generated lab brain storm session


Module 2-From the Universe to Planet Earth

These hominids feel an affinity with the Class Reptilia

Date Topic Readings
Week 4



Week 5


  • Lecture: Doppler effect/ Kepler's Laws
  • Lab:Stargazing/Telescope Use
    • Extraterrestrial search laboratory
    • Problem set on Keppler
    • Student Generated Labs
Week 6


Week 7


  • Round-robin review of S-G labs by class
  • Lab Work


Week 8


  • Lecture: The Solar System & Earth: Plate Tectonics
  • Lab:
    • Exercise with Maps of the seafloor
    • Student generated lab work!
    • Three day weekend--Oct. 16

Module 3- Evolution & Extinction
An asteroid speeds toward Earth at 50 kilometers per second

<-----JUST BEFORE the big hit: the dinosaurs await their fate...a really bad day at the office for the Earth!

Sixty-five million years later -----------> human-type mammals celebrate the Mass Extinction (our big chance to run the planet).

65 my ago, the continents were in slightly different places and sealevel was higher. The green areas are the exposed continental areas. The red spot shows where the asteroid will hit in a few minutes... In this computer generated gravity anomaly image of the structure of the ocean crust (continents are black), the horrific effects of the hit are still identifiable after 65 million years. The red spot shows the Chicxulub Crater site where the asteroid hit.
Date Topic Readings
Week 9


Lecture: History of Earth: Origins of Life and Death
Lab: Student-generated labs,organization
Discuss Time Scale Projects
Extinction, Raup Chs 1-4
**LAB PACKETS DUE (Posting + Hard Copy)
Post Progress Reports
Week 10


Lecture: Good Genes, Bad Luck, and What the Trilobites Did Wrong
Lab: Discussion of Time and How We Plan Not to Become Extinct
Student-generated lab 1
Discovery Lab Manual, 1
Deep Time, Benford Intro pp. 1-29; Raup Chs 5, 6
Post Progress Reports
Week 11


Lecture: The Muck Swamp Lecture; the MUCK SWAMP LAB Natural Selection and Hardy-Weinberg
Lab: Discuss Marker Project Design and Explanatory Paper
Student-generated lab 2
Discovery Lab Manual, 2
Deep Time, Benford Part One; Raup Chs 7,8
Post Progress Reports
Week 12


Lecture: Profile of a Mass Extinction: The Biggest Event of the Last 65 Million Years (BolidePaLooza!)
Lab: Muck Swamp Frog Lab and Natural Selection
Student-generated lab 3
Discovery Lab Manual, 3
Deep Time, Benford Part Three; Raup Chs 9-11
***Geologic Time-Scale Projects Due Post Progress Reports
The 10 km wide asteroid hits after a 2 second transit through the Earth's atmosphere. In that eventful 2 seconds, most of its mass has vaporized into a 95 km raging, planet rocking fireball. In less than 1 second more it will hit the ocean, then submerged continental shelf crust. The vaporized asteroid will be blasted upward on a column of superheated steam. More nifty details of mass extinction in lecture... A view over the crater into the now very round Gulf of Mexico (well, it will be the Gulf in 65 million years). After about 2 hours, the tsunamis have died out but the local ocean is still boiling and Yucatan-to-be is fried and still nearly molten as mantle materials emerge through the shattered continental shelf crust. The biosphere is still burning in a planetary firestorm and is visible as the black soot in the sky. More details in lecture...

Module 4-Ecosystems of Interest

Erosion exposes shale and limestone outcrops deposited during the Ordovician Period.

Date Topic Readings
Week 13


  • Lecture: Tropical Rainforests
  • Lab:Rainforest discussion
  • Student-generated lab 4
Week 14


  • No Lecture: Thanksgiving Holiday
  • Lab: Student generated labs
Week 15


  • Coral Reefs
  • Lab: Student-generated lab 5
    • Discussion
    • Student generated labs
Week 16


  • Course Review: (DOWNLOAD the Final Exam Review Sheet)
  • Lab: Final report preparation
    • Course review
  • Media Night Discovery Science Presentations, One from each section, Monday, 7-10 pm
Week 17


Comprehensive Final Exam!!
See ya next semester!

The Swans show off their feeding strategy in this Quicktime Video Check out the final report of the Swan Study.

Other Important Stuff

WCP 121/123 is part of your education in interdisciplinary studies. It is also part of your liberal education and the course is planned to explicitly address the principles of the Miami Plan for Liberal Education, Foundation IV-biology and lab science requirement. In the section that follows we give you some idea of the ways these principles are expressed in the course curriculum.

Critical Thinking: This course is characterized by DISCOVERY-ORIENTED Learning. Discovery labs are process-oriented and centered on the student. Students will learn to generate their own laboratory exercises, which the whole class will do together. We will critically evaluate hypotheses, experimental designs, and the methods of acquisition, and the analysis, of data.

Whereas content is important, student involvement is even more so. By stressing the process of scientific inquiry, discovery-oriented labs impart the content of science in a manner that makes science a way of knowing. Laboratory work is not added; it is integral to the development of critical thinking. Critical thinking is revealed in writing, presentations and discussions.

Understanding Contexts: The central context to be understood is that of science and scientific knowledge itself. This context is established by placing ourselves, faculty and students, as scientific learners.

Engaging with Other Learners: Engaging with other learners is of vital importance to the pedagogy of Natural Systems courses. Besides weekly discussion sessions, students will be working together on both instructor- and student-generated laboratories. We are building a cumulative "Natural Science Database" monitoring our local environment on the Western Campus and immediate locality. Student involvement in generating this Database will influence "other learners" in the future as well as the immediate group in any particular class. This unusual interaction permits contributions to be made from one class to another.

Reflecting and Acting: All Natural Systems courses recognize the relationship between the environment and society and each course provides a distinct, though related, series of angles from which this relationship may be viewed. The first course, WCP 121, is a course that reflects on both the biological and the physical sciences, with about two thirds emphasizing the biological sciences and one third the physical sciences. Implications of scientific data for making citizenship decisions are important to the students. The course is composed mainly of students majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies and Environmental Design. For both of these constituencies it is important to raise the questions: What is scientific knowledge? and, What does this knowledge mean for both local and global society?

Assessment: The very nature and direction of this course depend on student input. To a greater degree than most courses, WCP 121/123 evolves as a result of your participation. Your assessment of what the course has covered and what questions you would like to investigate next will determine the subjects and events of the last half of the course. We use an experimental approach (e.g., student-generated laboratories) to teaching that will demand much from you and the instructors.

Besides the formal assessment procedures of the Western Program, your instructors consult extensively with each other during course planning and work together closely to share resources and ideas.

Interdisciplinary Studies: Natural Science Program Teaching Philosophy

Click if you'd like to learn about our instructor and student generated labs, independent research & publications, the natural science database, opportunities for field research, writing in the sciences, the Julia Rothermel Peer Science Center, and tutor responsibilities.

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