Course philosophy

The PFTC courses follow six principles:

Functional traits are key to understand plant responses and effects in ecosystems. 

  • Trait-based approaches are central to developing a more predictive ecological science. An emphasis on functional relationships between traits, climate, and biotic interactions feeds rapidly into the identification of general patterns and, hence, prediction. Ecologists must make predictive statements to help policy makers make informed decisions. Traits are also central to resolving many core debates, and to enhancing synthesis between many exciting emerging fields, in ecology and evolution. The PFTCs are (i) showcasing just how traits help advance our science; (ii) developing field, lab, and communication skills by ‘learning by doing’; (iii) by providing opportunities to become a working practitioner of trait-based ecology  and (iv) to contribute new scientific research in trait based ecology.   

The added values of learning science by doing science. 

  • We believe that doing science – that is, being actively involved in planning, conducting and reporting real, publishable research –  is a very powerful way of teaching and learning science.
  • Learning to conduct research through hands-on experience highlights the specific processes, logistics, and challenges that are often overlooked and difficult to communicate in educational settings. 
  • Learning to conduct research via ‘hands-on’ opportunities entails working on new problems or in new settings, which entails uncertainties on many levels, and requires approaches for adapting and changing plans. 
  • Hands-on research is also labour intensive; producing research-grade datasets requires efficient and professional lab, field, and computational work processes.   
  • We believe that by integrating the PFTC courses into real trait data research campaigns we add value both to the learning and to the research.    

Good research is (p)reproducible research. 

  • Reproducibility is the core foundation of science. Without reproducibility, our approaches cannot be tested, and our results cannot be challenged. 
  • We see reproducibility as a holistic approach that affects all aspects of the research process, from planning via data collection and analyses to reporting results. Therefore, we teach and use best-practice reproducible workflows in our courses and field campaigns.
  • FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) open science practices are quickly gaining traction in ecology, increasing reliability of science, enhancing data re-use and synthesis, and opening new research opportunities. We are actively contributing to these developments, and encourage students to do the same. 

Building the scientific community

  • Science is a collaborative endeavour–involving scientists at different levels, from different backgrounds, and with different areas of expertise. 
  • We believe that science greatly benefits from enabling everyone to actively contribute, and we therefore explicitly recruit from a diversity of backgrounds and empower the students to take part in collective decision-making about research objectives and priorities.
  • In-depth knowledge of the local systems and communities strengthens both the quality and relevance of research, and we therefore collaborate with local researchers and projects, and prioritize students from within the region of each course.
  • By discussing broader science issues, like the value and ethics of research collaboration, career development, and community involvement, PFTCs contribute to develop responsible research practices among instructors and course participants. 

Reaching out. 

  • By publishing course outcomes, we engage PFTC students in the full science workflow, and we create added science value from the courses. 
  • By listening to relevant stakeholders (e.g., local communities, funding agencies, collaborators), we do embed learning and research in real-world problems.
  • We realize that science practice, and scientific priorities, are embedded in human societies. As such, PFTC participants are expected to be accountable to their home communities, their funding agencies, and society at large. This means that participants should welcome the opportunity to engage in dialogue about their research with their local communities, and with communities near the sites we visit. 
  • We realize that listening is often the most effective form of communication.
  • By communicating with local communities, we acknowledge that, as field biologists working where others live, we can learn from individuals that experience our field sites more intimately, and more regularly. 

Our focus – climate change in alpine grasslands. 

  • The PFTCs use trait-based approaches to study climate change impacts on alpine grassland ecosystems around the world. We have chosen this focus partly because these are important issues of great societal consequence, partly because we have research backgrounds in this general field and system, and partly because this enables comparative approaches by combining data from the different PFTC courses. Also, everyone knows grasses are the coolest plants.