New teaching module for using data to understand ecological disturbances

November 18, 2016

In September 2013, a cold weather system slowly moved across Boulder county, Colorado causing unprecedented rainfall and devastating floods resulting in multiple fatalities and over $2 billion in damages. Using data that was collected before, during and after the storm, NEON has published its first undergraduate teaching module aimed specifically at faculty wanting to use data in undergraduate classrooms. The free module, available on, allows students to use real-world ecological data to better understand the causes and effects of natural disturbance events like floods.

Staff scientist and science educator, Megan Jones explains, “In addition to using LiDAR measurements collected by the NEON Airborne Observation Platform, we incorporated satellite imagery, drought index, rainfall and stream gauge data from the USGS and NOAA into the lesson. The combination of these data provide great insight into what happened during those floods and can help understand future flood events and their impacts on society.”

What’s in the teaching module

Quantifying The Drivers and Impacts of Natural Disturbance Events – The 2013 Colorado Floods was developed in collaboration with Leah Wasser and Mariela Perignon, both at University of Colorado, Boulder. The goal behind the module was to make it very accessible for instructors and students alike, even those fairly new to working with data in the classroom. Jones says, “Working with data in the classroom can be intimidating, yet it’s so important for being able to address larger, more complex ecological questions – and even questions beyond ecology that students encounter daily. This module hopefully gives instructors an out of the box solution for exposing their students to interpreting and working with data.” 

The module includes a lesson page with explanatory text, videos, graphics and charts that explore different types of data and how they allow us to understand why a major disturbance events occur. Instructors can use the figures to have students discuss and interpret the data. There are also data activities in R that teaches students how to work with each type of data and create the plots used in the lesson. In addition, there is a short video introducing the 2013 floods and data associated with the event.

Organized, downloadable data subsets

All of the curated teaching data subsets are provided for download so that instructors and students know that the data are clean and will work in a classroom teaching setting. Instructions for accessing the data sets directly from the original databases are also provided, allowing instructors to create extensions where students ask their own questions of the full data. 

Although the teaching module is about a specific event, the skills learned in the lesson and associated data activities transfer to working with other types of data. 

The specific data sets used include:

The module will be listed with QUBES and faculty in the Spring 2017 DIG into Data for the Biology Classroom Faculty Mentoring Network will have the opportunity to use this module and develop other teaching modules using NEON data.

Explore the teaching module now

Dialog content.