On the Road to ESA: A Q&A with Case Studies in the Environment Section Editor Cynthia Wei

Cynthia Wei is a Section Editor for the Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation section of UC Press’s new peer-reviewed journal, Case Studies in the Environment, as well as Associate Director of Education at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), based in Annapolis, Maryland.

We caught up with Cynthia as she made her way to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), held this year in Portland, Oregon.

Cynthia Wei, Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation Section Editor

Cynthia, not only are you a Section Editor for an environmental journal which takes a case study approach, but you also developed and lead SESYNC’s short course, Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies. What is your background and how did that lead to an interest in case studies?

Cynthia: My background is in animal behavior, and when I used to tell people about my research on honeybees and birds, I found it easy to engage with non-scientists about what I did. But inevitably, the conversation would circle around to the question: “So how does your work help humans?” With some degree of exasperation, I’d often shrug and say: “Why does everything have to be about humans?!” I would have a different response now as I’ve come to realize that the human dimension is inescapable; we are hard-pressed to think of an environmental issue, ecosystem, or species that is not influenced by humans in some substantive way. These days, my work focuses more on helping students to learn about the relationships between humans and nature, particularly through the use of environmental case studies in the classroom. For me, case studies are a natural fit for teaching in the environmental arena. Understanding and addressing environmental problems involves many complex, abstract theories and concepts, and case studies help students to learn these by providing detailed examples that tangibly illustrate these difficult ideas. Furthermore, the problems presented in cases are often very compelling to students.

Why are case studies important for ecology?

Cynthia: As an experimental biologist, as many ecologists are, the concept of publishing a case study was somewhat foreign to me, and the idea of publishing a single example of a phenomenon ran counter to my trained instincts (i.e. that’s an anecdote!) However, like natural history monographs, I think there is great value in publishing research-based, detailed descriptions of a single subject, event, or issue. Because environmental problems are often deeply complex and require a systems perspective, case studies illuminate the roles and relationships between various factors in a socio-environmental system or problem in a detailed, nuanced way. Thus, case studies that can illustrate the roles of ecological factors and their relationship to other factors in a system are important for helping us understand and address a particular environmental problem involving that system.

Would you encourage ecologists to submit their own case studies to Case Studies in the Environment?

Cynthia: Absolutely! In the section that I am responsible for (along with Martha Groom, University of Washington, and Tuyeni Mwampamba, UNAM) we have already published some interesting case studies, including material on Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco, a dry tropical forest reserve in Ecuador; on an Australian woodland rehabilitation project; and an analysis of a massive data set on human-bear conflicts in New Jersey; with additional case studies coming soon on an eco-hotel in Costa Rica and on environmental justice, indigenous peoples, and development in British Columbia. I would encourage any colleagues at ESA to talk with me about case studies (you can likely find me at the SESYNC booth in the exhibit hall), or to get in touch via the journal at cse@ucpress.edu.

 

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles, case study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case study slides. The journal aims to inform faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.

Through December 31, 2017, all Case Studies in the Environment content is available free. To learn more about the journal, including guidelines for prospective authors, please visit cse.ucpress.edu.

 


The Case for Case Studies

By Wil Burns, Editor-in-Chief of Case Studies in the Environment

What is a case study, and how can case studies positively impact critical thinking and knowledge acquisition, as well as inform research in academia and training in professional practice? In this post, Case Studies in the Environment Editor-in-Chief Wil Burns explains what case studies are, and how they can provide an important bridge to understanding important environmental issues.

What is a “Case Study?”

In its most distilled form, a “case study” involves investigation of “real-life phenomenon through detailed contextual analysis of a limited number of events or conditions, and their relationships.” The “case” may focus upon an individual, organization, event, or project, anchored in a specific time and place. Most cases are based on real events, or a plausible construction of events, and tell a story, often involving issues or conflicts which require resolution. They also frequently include central characters and quotations and dialogue. Often the objective of a case study approach is to develop a theory regarding the nature and causes of similarities between instances of a class of events. More broadly, case studies seek to illustrate broader, overarching principles or theses. In recent years, researchers have increasingly embraced the study method in recognition of the limitations of quantitative methods to provide in-depth and holistic explanations of social problems.

Case Studies in the Classroom

Case studies can play an extremely important role in the classroom. Research surveying faculty and student learning results associated with the use of case studies demonstrate significant increases in student critical thinking skills and knowledge acquisition, as well as enhanced ability to make connections between multiple content areas and to view issues from different perspectives. Case studies can also promote active learning, which has been proven to enhance learning outcomes. Case studies can help to facilitate learning by deductive learners by helping them to reason from examples, analogies, and models, as well as from basic principles.

In the specific context of environmental studies and science courses, case studies have proven to be a valuable component of teaching by fostering critical transdisciplinary perspectives conductive to addressing environmental issues. The case study method has also been employed in an effort to foster engaged learning in environmental studies and science courses by “flipping the curriculum.”

Case Studies in the “Real World”

Case studies are also a valuable tool for environmental practitioners. They can provide guideposts for best practices, as well as lessons learned by others in any given professional sector, including in the environmental arena. The case study method has proven to be an effective tool to assist environmental professional in developing effective recommendations and policy prescriptions. Also pertinent to the environmental sector, case study research can also help to identify relevant variables to facilitate subsequent statistical research. Moreover, case studies can be employed in organizations for training purposes to foster problem-based learning and the ability to formulate solutions.

Case Studies in the Environment

Case Studies in the Environment is a new online journal published by the University of California Press. It seeks to foster the development of a substantial compendium of case studies by the environmental academic and professional communities. The journal focuses on environmental cases studies in the following categories:

It is our hope that Case Studies in the Environment will help to develop a community of scholars and practitioners that can leverage the benefits of case studies on behalf of our efforts to combat some of the most imposing environmental issues of our time. Learn more at cse.ucpress.edu, or sign up for Case Studies in the Environment news alerts.