The task of training an effective cadre of biodiversity scientists has grown more challenging in recent years, as foundational skills and knowledge in organismal biology have increasingly required complementary data skills and knowledge.

Biodiversity collections are one way to address this training conundrum, say Brad Ruhfel, collection manager of vascular plants at the University of Michigan, Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University and colleagues.

Biodiversity collections operate at the nexus of foundational biological practice and contemporary data science, a product of their role as curators of not only specimens themselves but also the specimens’ associated data and network of data resources — referred to as the “extended specimen” — the researchers say.

Ruhfel and colleagues describe a module that leverages this feature of biodiversity collections to produce a holistic student learning experience. “Connecting Students to Citizen Science and Curated Collections” was designed by the authors with six learning goals in mind, ranging from plant specimen collection in the field to the deposition of data in national or international databases.

“This was an opportunity to think collectively, to build a project with other people from different universities,” said Ruhfel, assistant research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Six of us came together and really thought about this tool. We all bounced ideas back and forth across each other and built a community of practice to create a project that would be broadly applicable.”

Students also learned about the value of large data sets and the role of community members’ contributions to them. The module was implemented and assessed in 10 courses across four universities, with 148 undergraduate and graduate students included in the data analysis.

Students maintained specimen collection notebooks, used proper field collection techniques for identifying and archiving specimens, and were able to prepare and deposit quality herbarium specimens into a physical collection, as well as deposit associated specimen data into national or international databases.

Brad Ruhfel, Collection Manager, Division of Vascular Plants, Assistant Research Scientist

“It’s great to look at our project website and see over 7,900 observations from students,” Ruhfel said. “Before, they would collect their stack of specimens and it would just sit in your closet and maybe make its way into the museum eventually. No one would really know about it. Now, these students are actually producing data that the world is going to use.”

A post-module assessment showed the students “felt well prepared, very well prepared or totally prepared to use foundational and emerging plant collecting skills, including maintaining a field notebook (89 percent), collecting specimens in the field (94 percent), and depositing specimens (89 percent) and digital data (92 percent) into national and international data repositories.”

Ruhfel and colleagues say the results point to the value of biology education that unites foundational skills and knowledge with data acumen in a context that is both authentic and reflective of current scientific practice. Their study is published in BioScience, a journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

“As scientists and educators, we must embrace the changing landscape of biodiversity science and leverage the foundational skills that collections have fostered for centuries to help engage, inspire and build the next generation of scientists,” Ruhfel said.