Extinction of Species class offers insights into global biodiversity, threats and solutions

Our world is vast and brimming with an array of creatures. It can be challenging to think about what goes on outside our own neighborhoods, but in Extinction of Species, students are presented a global view of biodiversity.

“The primary goal is to broaden students’ understanding of what global biodiversity is, how it’s distributed across the world, and why it is so valuable” says instructor Karie Cherwin, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. “We then go into the biggest threats that are facing global biodiversity and what people are doing to address these threats.”

Extinction of Species is cross listed as Forest and Wildlife Ecology/Environmental Studies/Zoology 360 and is offered as an online option in the summer. The class is designed with a variety of students in mind. It isn’t an introductory level course, but it is a prerequisite for several other courses and satisfies breadth requirements for multiple majors. For CALS students, it also satisfies the international studies requirement.

The class begins with an overview of the major threats to biodiversity, such as habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and infectious diseases. These anthropogenic, or human-caused, threats result in significant losses to biodiversity as populations decline. Some of these species’ populations have dwindled to the point that they’re in danger of going extinct.

Once students understand the threats, they then learn ways to prevent extinctions; protecting global diversity is the ultimate goal. Conservation is an important strategy for this, and students dive into its human and political aspects, such as small actions in communities to federal laws like the Endangered Species Act.

“I got to learn about topics from a lot of different places. The class was not just focused on the United States — it gave us information about conservation or ecology related issues from all across the world,” says Rutuja Gupte, an undergraduate majoring in genetics and genomics and data science. “That’s what made it more interesting for me.” Gupte took the course in the summer of 2023.

Extinction of Species is also offered during the fall semester, but the summer course is an accelerated option. The course is manageable for students with content being both online and asynchronous.

“I think that asynchronous lectures are really convenient because you can watch them anytime during the week. I also had a considerably busy summer, so it was easy to accommodate an asynchronous class,” says Gupte. “It’s great for summertime because you may have other things going on, but you’re still getting a lot of quality content.”

Over the course of eight weeks, students watch recorded lectures or other relevant videos, listen to podcasts, and engage with each other in discussion chat boards. Students can meet with the instructor every week during virtual office hours.

Gupte is a member of the Sharp Lab, where she studies evolutionary genetics and mutations in yeast. She used her one-on-one time with Cherwin to learn more about a field she didn’t know much about — ecology.

“She directed me to some resources that I could read up on to know more about how research works in ecology,” says Gupte. “She also asked about my interests, and recommended research that combine both my interests in genetics and data science with ecology. I think it would be an amazing combination.”

While learning about the extinction or near-extinction of a number of species may be disheartening, the class ends on a positive note. What does the future look like? What is sustainability? What can people do themselves that can give them hope for the future? Students are presented with some insights but are encouraged to explore these answers for themselves.

“Students have told me that they felt like their eyes have been opened, and that they’ve been exposed to things that they weren’t aware of before,” says Cherwin. “Sometimes those opinions can be fleeting, but it gives me encouragement that the message of this class is getting through to students.”