EEB 5370: Current Topics in Conservation Biology

Spring 2022: Conservation in urban settings

Credits: 1

Instructors: Chris Elphick (email: chris.elphick[AT]

Meeting time: Wednesdays 5-6

Location: Video conference (participants will be expected to turn on cameras and to speak each week); maybe transitioning to in person after week 2

The topic of this seminar course varies from year to year depending on what is “current” in conservation biology and what students in the program are interested in focusing on. Usually we pick a recent book or selected readings focused around a specific theme in order to get a deeper understanding of the topic than would be normal in a survey course. If you have suggestions for future topics, please let me know.

The course is required for students in the EEB BS/MS program, but is open to all graduate students. A few senior (and occasionally junior) undergraduates also take the course every year, and I encourage you to do so if you are interested. To be eligible as an undergraduate, you should have at least a B average and should talk to me first. I am much more likely to admit you if you have taken, and done well in, EEB 2208E, 2100E, and/or EEB 2244E.  Undergraduates will need a permission number to enroll. The course is limited to ~12-15 students each year and I occasionally have to turn people away, but we try to accommodate as many people as possible. Priority is given to students in the BS/MS program who need the course to graduate. Post-docs, adjuncts, and (even) faculty are welcome to join in the fun.

This year, we will focus on reading papers that examine the practice of conservation in urban settings.

Schedule (subject to change)

A tentative schedule is posted below. Everyone should sign up to lead the discussion one week (see below for tips on leading effectively). Email me and tell me when you’d like to lead so that I can put you on the schedule. Please give me your top 3 choices; slots will be assigned on a first come, first served basis.

When it is your turn to present, you should prepare:

(i) A 5-10 minute (no more!) introduction to the material presented in your readings (see below for more guidance). Everyone is expected to read the assigned material so you do not need to give an exhaustive overview – just an introduction to ensure we’re all up to speed and know what you think the key points are.

(ii) Enough questions (I’d suggest 6-10) to stimulate discussion for the remaining 40-50 mins of class. These should sent to me (Chris E.) by the SUNDAY evening before you present, so that I can post them in time for everyone to look them over before class on Wednesday. Note that, when things go well, we often run out of time – so prioritize your questions to ensure that we cover the most important ones.

Week Who Topic Reading Notes
19 Jan Chris E. Organizational
26 Jan Chris E. Setting the scene Notetaker: Alyssa
 2 Feb Nick Ecology in urban settings Notetaker: Ketki
 9 Feb Kelsey Evolution in urban settings Notetaker:  Katja
 16 Feb Ketki Urban land-sharing vs land-sparing Notetaker: Tess
 23 Feb Katja Challenges in urban conservation


 9 Mar Charlie Plant conservation in urban settings
 23 Mar Alyssa Invertebrate conservation in urban settings
30 Mar Tess Vertebrate conservation in urban settings
6 Apr Val Ecosystem services
 13 Apr TBD  
20 Apr TBD
 27 Apr Everyone Recap and summary



Here are some general comments about my expectations for the class. Exact details will vary depending on the semester’s topic. Generally we will read papers or have presentations and discuss them in class each week. Most discussions will be led by students, and everyone is expected to sign up to lead at least one discussion. The schedule is posted above.

Discussion leaders: Generally, my expectation is that you will present a 5-10 minute (NO MORE!) introduction to the topic. Your introduction should draw on the readings, but should not simply re-state what we have all read. Simply reiterating what the readings say is boring and doesn’t accomplish much. Instead, your job as leader is to get a discussion going. This is hard (and I will help), but far more interesting for everyone involved. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure that you have enough to say to keep things moving, but do not feel that you have to say everything that you have thought of or cover every idea in the readings. If the conversation is going well, just let it take its course. The worst thing that can happen is that no one says anything. The next worst thing is that the leader completely dominates the conversation (I can be guilty of this sin myself, so feel free to cut me off if I’m talking too much).
  • In your introduction, try to synthesize the material and draw out the major points. What are the 3-5 things you’d tell your parents/partner/well-informed parrot if you were going to explain this to them over dinner – the chances are good that these are the same things we should be focused on. Also, feel free to supplement the reading material with other information on the topic to broaden the discussion.
  • Come with a list of questions to ask (more than you think you’ll need). The more specific the questions are the better, as this makes them easier for people to respond to. Email around some questions a day or two before class so that people can think about them while they are reading the materials (if you email them to me, I will forward them to the rest of the class).
  • Ask people what surprised them, and why. If you’re not leading, think how you’d answer this question. If people complain about the readings, ask them how things could have been done better, or what needs to be done next.
  • Where possible, try to relate your topic to those we have discussed in previous weeks so that the ideas covered by the class build over the course of the semester.
  • Being purposefully provocative (even if you don’t believe what you’re saying) can often help to get people talking. If the material is appropriate, set the discussion up as a debate – tell half the class that they have to argue one side and the other half that they have to argue the opposite. This approach can force people to really think about the ideas and about their preconceptions. If you are going to do this, it is best to warn people ahead of time (though don’t tell them which side they will be on).
  • When you ask a question, give people lots of time to respond. A good rule is to (slowly) count to 10 in your head before moving on. This is because (a) it often takes people this long to formulate something to say and (b) the uncomfortable silence (and it can be excruciating) is often what it takes to get people talking. This sounds (and can feel) horrible, but it really works, and the discussions that result are much richer.
  • If no one answers a question, and there is a simple yes/no, do you agree/disagree, type answer, then ask for a show of hands – then you can focus in on individuals and ask them to explain their response.
  • Don’t pick on individuals and make them comment unless you have to. But if no one says anything, then it is OK to do this. Everyone else is responsible for reading and thinking about the material too, so it should not be a surprise to them. Even though you are in charge of running things, the responsibility for maintaining a discussion lies with everyone in the room. If you think people are not engaging in the discussion enough, then it is your job to do something about it … don’t just expect me to step in and do it for you.
  • Finally, in weeks when you are not leading, make sure that you have thought about the material enough that you can help the leader out. Come with at least 2 or 3 ideas to talk about if things get too quiet. If the leader has sent out questions, think about them before class. And be responsible about doing the reading. If you do all this stuff, others will do the same when it’s your turn to lead.

The hardest part is getting the conversation started. Once it’s going, it will often run itself – and if it is doing this then you should let it. I’ve been running seminars for a few years now, and I’m only just getting to where I realize that my job is to say as little as possible. If I talk the whole time, then I’m essentially lecturing … and this is not a lecture format … the goals are very different, they are to get people thinking on their feet and discussing ideas to help them learn for themselves. But, it is your job to ensure that we are not just subjected to silence.

PowerPoint: When presenting a reading, I don’t really mind whether you use PowerPoint or not. Often, it is not necessary, but sometimes it can help by putting up key talking points where everyone can see them. If you do use PowerPoint, it should be to help maintain a conversation, not to just reiterate what is in the reading. If there are figures that you want to ask questions about, then putting them up on a screen can be very useful. Likewise, having your questions on screen for people to refer to can help.  If you do not have a laptop, let me know and you can use mine.

Grading: The course is S/U and it is unusual for people to fail. But, if you hardly ever participate in the discussions, I will fail you. This is your only warning!!

If you have never led a discussion in a seminar course before, or feel nervous about doing so, please talk to me beforehand. It isn’t as hard as it might seem, and it’s always easier if you’re well prepared and know what to expect.

Course history

If you are interested in the topics that we have covered in this class in past years, I have preserved previous versions of the web page, linked below.

During 2021, we examined the practice of conservation through the lens of the IUCN Red and Green Lists. We discussed methods for assessing species extinction risk and recovery, and for translating IUCN methods to site protection. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2020, the topic was methods for assessing the most important questions in conservation and for horizon scanning. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2019, the topic was the land-sparing vs land-sharing debate. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2018, I was on sabbatical and did not teach this course.

During 2017, the topic was conservation risk assessment. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2016, the topic was conservation planning.  To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2015, the topic was ecosystem services. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2014, the topic was climate change and extinction. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2013, the topic was conservation in urban settings. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2012, the topic was trade-offs in conservation biology. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2011, the topic was climate change. To see what was covered during that course, click here.

During 2010, the topic was invasion biology. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2009, the topic was evidence-based conservation. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2008, the topic was the history of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2007, the topic was the biological consequences of climate change. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2006, the topic was the conservation implications of invasive species. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2005, the topic was relating general conservation approaches to local problems in New England. To see what we covered during that course, click here.

During 2004, the topic was the role of science in the U.S. Endangered Species Act. To see what we covered during that course, click here; for a reading list, click here.

Other information

For information about EEB’s Joint B.S./M.S. degree program in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology click here

For information about the Society for Conservation Biology click here

For information on jobs in conservation biology click here

For information on jobs in wildlife biology click here