By Rachel Roberts
At the college level, natural history education has experienced significant declines within the last couple of decades. During the 1950s, the average number of natural history courses required to obtain an undergraduate biology degree was around three; today, the average number of natural history courses required for that same degree is zero. As defined in the Oxford Journal, Bioscience, natural history is the “fundamental properties of organisms—what they are, how and where they live, and the biotic and abiotic interactions that link them to communities and ecosystems.”
Natural history is important in the sense that it is the foundation for essential knowledge regarding human health, food security, conservation, land management, and recreation. While the natural history discipline has been on the decline, other scientific fields such as molecular biology, genetics, experimental modeling, and ecological modeling have become increasingly popular.
The problem is however, that many of these fields rely on data and specimens from natural history. The direct knowledge of organisms, including what they are, where they live, what they eat, how they behave and die is vital to society and understanding the world we live in. We have a surprisingly limited knowledge regarding our non-human neighbors, and it is almost impossible to understand larger scientific puzzles without all the smaller pieces.
Knowing about the natural history of a place requires a certain degree of time, knowledge, respect, and understanding. What most people lack is the ability to be in a natural place without worrying about something besides what is in front of them in the moment. This is where natural history education is important, as it can help to foster and build connections that allow a person to know the natural history of a place in ways that they didn’t previously think possible.
Natural history, however, doesn’t only need to be conducted in a college classroom. Citizen scientists are society’s “canaries in the coal mine.” Not only does spending time outdoors in nature improve one’s physical and psychological health, citizen scientists provide critical data in the realm of natural history. For example, every year, Audubon hosts a Christmas bird count with thousands of citizen scientists participating, where significant amounts of data regarding bird populations is collected.
There is a role for everyone including research, teaching, policy- making, financial support, and conservation. Naturalists and citizen scientists of all ages are needed, so reach out, recruit, and educate your fellow citizens!
“Christmas Bird Count.” Audubon. Audubon. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count>.
Frazer, Jennifer. “Natural History Is Dying, and We Are All the Losers | The Artful Amoeba, Scientific American Blog Network.”Scientific American Global RSS. Scientific American, 20 June 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/2014/06/20/the-slow-painful-decline-of-natural-history-and-its-unintended-consequences/>.
“Natural Decline.” Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://www.nature.com/news/natural-decline-1.14966>.
Tewksbury, Joshua, John Anderson, Jonathan Bakker, Timothy Billo, and Peter Dunwiddie. “BioScience.” Natural History’s Place in Science and Society. Bioscience, 26 Mar. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/23/biosci.biu032.full>.
Viscardi, Paolo. “Natural History Collections –- Why Are They Relevant?” The Guardian. The Guardian, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/apr/12/2>.