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Alex Racelis created this post

Implementing Demongraphy from Cememtery module (with a field trip!) in large-enrollment general ecology course


Institution/institution type:  University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley;  Large Primarily Undergraduate Institution; Hispanic Serving Institution

Course/Course format:  Ecology (BIOL 3409)-Upper division elective, Lecture/Lab

TIEE Module:  Cemetery Module

Quantitative skill focus: Data collection, presentation, and interpretation

I implemented the Demography from Cemeteries module in an upper level ecology course this past spring.  Although this is an upper level required course within the Biology Department  only prerequisites are basic biology and anatomy.   Preliminary assessment of the enrolled students suggest that they are not quantitatively grounded, many (66%) having yet not taken basic statistics or advanced math.  A majority (>50%) of the students were pre-med students.  As such, the course was a general course that focused on specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that help students with a better understanding and appreciation of how specific ecological concepts can be applied towards a better understanding of their world. 

The class had a total of 100 students enrolled--maxed out with four lab sections with 25 students each.  The class was in lecture-discussion format, meeting twice per week for 75 minutes each, and included a weekly lab of 2.5 hours. 

In general, the course was arranged in 10 discrete modules over the course of the 16 week semester.  The modules ranged from one to two class weeks, and ranged in topics from evolutionary ecology, biogeography, and in the example of this module, life history.  The primary objectives of this module was to develop skills in data collection, using the data to draw survivorship curves and build life tables to better understand life histories and survivorship in local human populations . Other objectives included familiarity with Excel in a scientific context, experience in selecting a data set, formulating and addressing questions .

The learning objectives for this module were as follows:


Life Cycles and Life History

Life Tables and Survivorship Curves


Collect and graph field data (excel)

Presentation skills (oral)

Teamwork skills


General understanding of the differences of life history of different populations

Ability to apply this understanding to other organisms and in different contexts

The subject of life history was addressed across 2-1.25 hr lectures and 2-2.5 hr labs.  Students were expected to read the corresponding section in their digital textbook (Simutext).   Although it is difficult to lead an off-campus field trip (with 100 students across 4 labs), the graduate student TAs agreed to help pilot this exercise given that the cemetery was relatively close to campus.  The lab was conducted in two separate sessions:  Week 1:  a field trip  to a local cemetery located less than 2 miles from campus , and Week 2: short presentations from each pair or three student team of students.  The lab complemented content addressed in lecture, but was facilitated by GTA's.

I adapted the materials minimally (see attached), only to include more local relevance for the students.  For example, I included details about the specific cemetery that we were to visit, and modified the instructions so that they were specific to the course format (times, etc).

This module was offered early in the course (in the first month of the semester), and introduced the skill of developing and interpreting graphs based on quantitative data.  The students practiced this skill in the first mid-term (offered soon after this module) and again in the final exam.   

Students were asked to present their graph (product) to their peers in a 5 minute oral presentation during the second week of the lab portion of this module.  Students were asked to describe their comparison of life histories of two different populations Student presentations were evaluated by TA using a rubric (attached here).  

Later in the course, students were given a midterm that included demographic data of primate populations from which they were to draw survivorship curves (graded).  There were 4 questions that followed up on the interpretation of these curves comparing populations and implications of different factors that influence survivorship and life histories.

If possible, I would explore examining the implications of larger data sets by having students pick from a set of comparisons (male vs. female, Hispanics vs. non Hispanics, etc).  In this module, I had students do more of an inquiry based approached which allowed them to make comparisons between any populiations they wanted. Limiting the choice of comparisons may better take advantage of the large class size (~100 students) to see if more data can help improve understanding of the concept of life histories and introduce the idea of sample size in data collection.

I would also modify the module to include a discussion of what might of factored in to the survivorship of folks in the past, and how would that differ from factors that influence survivorship today.  The region is infamous for the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country, and such a discussion may add cultural relevance to this exercise, and might add particular appeal to the majority of students who aspire to be medical professionals

I think that this module worked well for me in a large class setting, but only because I was able to take the students out to the field.  I am not sure if it would have been less impactful by using archived data, because many students really enjoyed walking around and learning about their own histories.  Some students saw graves of people of local historical importance, or even graves of possible relatives.


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Demography from physical cemeteries, “virtual cemeteries,” and census data

Materials related to this TIEE module by Janet Lanza, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2012

5 posts

Profile picture of Gabriela Hamerlinck

Gabriela Hamerlinck