What you will study
Understanding ecosystem structure and function is the key to understanding how life has persisted in the past and may yet flourish in the future.
The module offers a holistic approach and is composed of four blocks. They take you gradually from simple local systems and processes up to the complexity of the global scale. An introductory block defines what is meant by the term ‘ecosystem’ and presents a range of examples, describing their biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components. The second block then addresses the cycling of energy, water, carbon and inorganic nutrients through these systems. It reflects on how these flows control the type and number of organisms inhabiting the system and also how the presence of living organisms in turn affects the cycling of energy and matter. The resilience of the ecosystems to the perturbations of human activity is explored in the third block, using a range of case studies from across the globe. The final block looks at our planet as a whole to investigate the interdependence of the sub-systems within it.
The majority of this module is delivered online and you should expect to spend the following proportions of your time studying:
online text accessed via a website (15 per cent)
hardcopy module book (15 per cent)
a DVD-ROM from which you will access models, spreadsheets and video material (20 per cent)
web resources including electronic books and journal papers (20 per cent)
carrying out practical work (15 per cent)
web-searching (5 per cent)
assessment (10 per cent).
Throughout the module, the four core concepts of definition, cycling, resilience and interdependence will be illustrated by examples from around the world, using the full range of media. The module emphasises the nature of data obtained in environmental studies with its inherent variability. To understand our environment scientifically, manipulation and statistical interpretation of data are essential. You will be introduced to a number of statistical tests, accessed via spreadsheets (including ANOVA and multiple regression) to enhance your skills in this area. You will be given the opportunity to input data into these spreadsheets and critically analyse the statistical output.
One particularly interactive element will be the use of two digital thermometers, supplied in a home kit, to record your own observations. These observations will be made in two practical tasks; firstly on an individual basis and then in small groups involving an element of experimental design. Results will be compiled into a database that you’ll analyse to investigate some ecosystem properties. You will have the opportunity to apply your new skills with environmental statistics (e.g. ANOVA and multiple regression) to draw conclusions from your data. You will be assessed on the outputs from these activities in your tutor-marked assignments.
Another theme running through the module is the use of modelling. Predictive modelling of ecosystem response is now a frequent issue in the media. The module illustrates the different types of models that are used, exploring their inputs, components and assumptions so the output can be correctly interpreted. There will be a number of spreadsheet-based or stand-alone models that you will engage with to explore how a particular system responds to external influences. About 20 per cent of the module study time is devoted to the use of modelling and statistical tools, the majority of which are spreadsheet based.
In addition to the module book, DVD, web resources and digital thermometers, you will also have access to an introduction and guide, a glossary and a specimen examination paper. The three-hour examination will draw strongly on the activities undertaken during the module.