By: Alexa Warwick, Jennifer Sevin, Caitlin Fisher-Reid

Conservation and environmental professionals increasingly need to understand people’s thoughts and behaviors in order to effectively steward our natural resources, which includes diverse wildlife like amphibians. Traditionally, data from the natural sciences have been the primary input for conservation decisions (Bennett et al. 2017a; Bennett and Roth 2019). To address wicked problems like climate change, however, it is clear that consideration of socio-economic aspects is critical to finding and implementing solutions (e.g., Hagerman and Pelai 2018). The social sciences are therefore another source of data for researchers and practitioners to understand the human dimensions of conservation and natural resource management (Charnley et al. 2017). The field of “human dimensions” or “conservation social science” are interdisciplinary fields that draw on diverse social science theories and approaches (Bennett et al. 2017b). Social science data can be used to both understand and to forecast how human thoughts and behaviors can influence environmental policy and regulations. For example, a policy might be considered the best one in regard to environmental outcomes based on natural science data, but if no one will adopt or comply with that policy, a different policy may be better to balance human needs and natural resource protection.

Despite the increasing importance of understanding the human dimensions in conservation, most students taking natural science courses do not consider integration of social sciences as part of their education or training. To that end, we have developed a new “Human Dimensions in Amphibian Conservation: Addressing Threats” module as part of the SPARCnet Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (‘CURE’), funded by an NSF Improving Undergraduate Science Education grant (see our Education page for more info). Our learning objectives of the module are as follows:

  • Explain the role and importance of human dimensions research in wildlife management and conservation.
  • Appreciate and understand how different experiences impact beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of people towards wildlife.
  • Discuss threats to amphibians and conservation interventions.
  • Be familiar with and use the lexicon of social science research. 
  • Implement the use of a conceptual model as a conservation tool.
  • Apply social science research techniques to develop a project proposal on amphibian conservation.  
  • Learn about the ethical considerations in conducting human subject research.
  • Become aware of new research and career opportunities.

The first version of the module is now available on the SPARCnet QUBES Educational Resources page (direct module link here). The instructor guide describes lessons covering about two weeks, but it could be made shorter or longer by choosing particular components or adding extensions. The module builds on previous student knowledge about amphibian ecology and the conducting science research. 

Initially, students explore threats to amphibians by conducting background research as a homework assignment. Then they are guided through a series of discussions as a class or in small groups with four overall categories of question prompts that should elicit considerations of how the human dimensions can impact conservation outcomes. For example, students start with a question about their favorite and least favorite organism and end on whether they support removal of invasive species. Next, students conduct a stakeholder analysis relating to the spread of the salamander chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) into North America. Following this activity, as homework they read Bennett et al. (2017b) and complete any relevant Institutional Review Board training for human subjects research to prepare for their own human dimensions project. 

During class students use conceptual models to explore human dimensions and work in small groups to develop their own model using amphibian conservation as the biodiversity scope. For homework they explore social science techniques and then develop their research project proposal tied to the conceptual model developed. If time allows, students could actually complete or at least begin the project, and present those results, or just present their plan to the rest of the class. At the end, students are asked to consider how social science research is used as a conservation tool and how it is similar or different from natural science research, as well as any challenges they experienced in conducting the assignments.

This Human Dimensions module was piloted in Dr. Jennifer Sevin’s undergraduate Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology course in Fall 2020 in a hybrid format (some virtual and some in-person) at the University of Richmond. Considering it was such a new concept for students, Dr. Sevin found the time allotted was simply not enough and the posted module reflects introducing students to human dimensions in a more stepwise manner.  Every student commented on the added value this unit brought to the course and many went as far as to say that biology degree programs should incorporate a social science/human dimension course.  Dr. Sevin complimented the pilot activity with a guest presentation from Dr. Meredith Gore, a social scientist from the University of Maryland. The students really enjoyed learning from Dr. Gore how social science research is being conducted and applied to conservation. 

If you are interested in integrating social and natural science data in your undergraduate course, check out this new teaching module!


  • Bennett, N.J., Roth, R., Klain, S.C., Chan, K.M.A., Clark, D.A., Cullman, G., Epstein, G., Nelson, M.P., Stedman, R., Teel, T.L., Thomas, R.E.W., Wyborn, C., Curran, D., Greenberg, A., Sandlos, J., Veríssimo, D., 2017a. Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conserv. Biol. 31, 56–66.
  • Bennett, N.J., Roth, R., Klain, S.C., Chan, K.M.A., Christie, P., Clark, D.A., Cullman, G., Curran, D., Durbin, T.J., Epstein, G., Greenberg, A., Nelson, M.P., Sandlos, J., Stedman, R.C., Teel, T.L., Thomas, R.E.W., Veríssimo, D., Wyborn, C., 2017b. Conservation social science: understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation. Biol. Conserv. 205, 93–108.
  • Bennett, N.J., Roth, R. 2019. Realizing the transformative potential of conservation through the social sciences, arts and humanities.  Biol. Conserv. 229, A6-A8.
  • Charnley, S., Carothers, C., Satterfeld, T., Levine, A., Poe, M.R., Norman, K., Donatuto, J., Breslow, S.J., Mascia, M.B., Levin, P.S., Basurto, X., Hicks, C.C., García-Quijano, C., St. Martin, K. 2017. Evaluating the best available social science for natural resource management decision making. Environ. Sci. Policy. 73, 80–88.
New course module available – human dimensions!