Biology: Human Populations

Title: Human Populations
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology
Authors: Scott Cooper, Anne Galbraith, Dan Gerber, Deb Hanmer, Daniel Sutherland, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse


General Biology is an entry-level course for science majors.  It is designed to give students a background in the fundamental concepts in biology and to prepare them for upper level courses.  We focus on problem-solving skills and the ability to interpret biological data and form models based upon the theories discussed in lecture.

The lesson on Populations is at the end of the course.  In this lesson, we try to tie together concepts we have discussed earlier in the course.  In addition to understanding the principles that impact human population growth, we also want students to discover for themselves that human population growth has a negative impact on the environment, human health and quality of life.

Research Lesson

Students are bombarded with messages from 5th grade about how humans have a negative impact on the environment.  By the time they reach college and we lecture to them on the topic again, you can literally see their brains shut off.   Students in the US are also isolated from many environmental and health issues that are current problems in much of the world.  This can lead to the perception that overpopulation is not a problem because nothing bad has happened yet.

Most of the damage to the environment can be traced directly to human overpopulation.  We want the students to collect and discuss data relevant to this issue and draw their own conclusions. We want students to be able describe how human population levels and consumption impact the environment.

The lesson was be centered around “The Parasitologist’s Dilemma”.  A dilemma facing researchers and health care providers in developing countries is the balance between overpopulation and disease.  When an effective treatment for a disease is found, it invariably leads to an increase in population, which in turn decreases the quality of life for that population, and a decrease in environmental quality.  The alternative is to let nature run its course and keep populations in check through disease and starvation.

Students were assigned a variable to research related to human populations in the United States, France and Tanzania.  They prepared a powerpoint slide containing the data from these three countries and a statement summarizing the impact of any difference on population growth.  These were then projected in class, where the students compared all of the variables to answer some specific discussion questions.


The lesson appeared to be effective in getting students to at least look at and think about the data relevant to populations, consumption and impact on the environment.  Without a good measure of how they felt on the issue coming into class, it is difficult to know if the module changed anyone’s opinions.  Students seemed to be more engaged (at least they weren’t asleep), and we went into some topics in much greater detail than we did before.  Comparing 20 variables in 3 different countries gave us a lot of different questions we could address in class.  While complex, we feel it gave students some idea of the magnitude of the issues facing scientists studying public health and the environment on a global level.

Biology Lesson Study – Human Populations (Final Report) 

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