ITEM 128-2004-R0705 Proposal


Proposal for a Masters Degree in Ecological & Environmental Statistics

Montana State University-Bozeman



We propose the institution of a new masters program in Ecological & Environmental Statistics.  The purpose of this program will be to foster interdisciplinary training at MSU, by promoting the statistical training of ecological and environmental scientists and the scientific training of statisticians.  Ecology and other biological and environmental science disciplines have become increasingly quantitative, and graduate students in those disciplines now require extensive training in sophisticated statistical thinking and methodology. The problem is national in scope. Lynn Steen has recently written in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Vol 51, Issue 26), “[b]iological research … is hampered by the lack of scientists able to work in teams where both biological and mathematical skills are employed.”  The problem is stated also in a recent article in Ecology, the premier journal in the field: “Hand in hand with promoting the kinds of research needed to advance the evolving science of ecological forecasting, we need to set an education agenda for developing and enhancing computational literacy of current and future ecologists, managers, and policymakers. … Scientists developing ecological projections require a background in probability, including notions of random variables, stochastic processes, and … statistics.” (C.A. Brewer and L.J. Gross (2003), Training Ecologists to Think with Uncertainty in Mind, Ecology, Vol 84, Issue 6:1412-1414.)  Such skills will enable ecological and environmental scientists to facilitate communication between science and society, between scientists and the general public and between scientists and those who make policy based on scientific knowledge. 


MSU is in a unique position to take advantage of and address these needs.  Yellowstone National Park is recognized and visited by people from around the globe, contributing substantially to the economy of Montana.  Further, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is recognized by scientists around the world as an outstanding natural laboratory for ecology and environmental science.  A degree in Ecological & Environmental Statistics would be unique among United States universities and would bring MSU to the vanguard of fundamental trends in science while helping to fulfill the University’s mission of promoting the intellectual and economic development of Montana.

Needs Assessment

Many graduate students in the Departments of Ecology and Land Resources & Environmental Sciences (LRES) already take a substantial number of statistics courses.  The existence of this second degree would attract quantitatively oriented students of high caliber to the Ecology and LRES PhD programs.  The degree could also serve as a standalone MS and would have a place in the job market with access to GS-5 thru GS-9 level federal jobs.


MSU’s graduate students in ecological and environmental sciences are finding that their fields are demanding more quantitative skills and analyses.  To meet these demands, our students are taking increasingly more statistics courses.  An MS program in Ecological & Environmental Statistics would allow our students to take these courses in an organized and supported fashion.  Our students would develop the skills they need and would receive an accreditation that will be very useful in their post-graduate job searches.


The demand for quantitative skills in the ecological and environmental sciences is general and not just local.  The availability of this novel graduate program will attract talented, quantitatively inclined students to Montana State University’s Ecology and LRES graduate programs.  In effect this opportunity for a second degree will be an added attraction for our PhD programs.


While the Ecological & Environmental Statistics Masters will likely be used as a collateral degree to enhance a PhD in an ecological or environmental science field, the degree will also serve as a standalone MS, both as a terminal degree and as a stepping stone to additional graduate work at MSU or other institutions. A substantial portion of our existing MS students in ecological and environmental science programs go on to subsequent PhD work.  This new program would provide an excellent opportunity for students in this category to develop additional skills.

Relationships among the Cooperating Departments

This program is designed to be interdisciplinary.  The goal is not only to teach students statistical methodology, but also to enhance their ability to think quantitatively about substantive problems in ecological and environmental science fields.  The program would require that students develop competencies both in statistics and in an ecological or environmental science discipline.  Although the degree would be housed in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, educating students in this program would be a joint venture between Mathematical Sciences and a collaborating department.  Currently, two departments have crafted such joint programs with Mathematical Sciences:  The Department of Ecology in the College of Letters & Science and the Department of Land Resources & Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture.  It is anticipated that other departments will also participate.  Such collaborations are likely to be of interest to departments such as Earth Sciences, Animal & Range Sciences, Agricultural Economics & Economics, and Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology.


The Ecological & Environmental Statistics program will be dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary communication on the MSU campus.  A number of planned programmatic activities will support this goal, including: 1) a seminar series in ecological and environmental statistics with invited speakers from departments across the campus, the MU System, and the nation, 2) an interdisciplinary journal club in statistical ecology, 3) a statistical consulting class, and 4) formal involvement in every student’s graduate committee by faculty from multiple departments.

Master’s Program Description

The MS would require a minimum 30 post-baccalaureate course credits with no more than 9 credits duplicated in other MSU degrees.  A minimum of 21 credits in statistics at the 400 level or above or other approved quantitative courses would be required.  Unless equivalent courses have been previously taken, these must include courses in applied regression, probability, mathematical statistics, and sampling.  A minimum of 20 credits of graduate level course work including at least 6 credits of graduate statistics will be required.


In addition to the course work described above, students will need to demonstrate a number of competencies: 1) Technical knowledge of the participating substantive field. The requirements to demonstrate this will be set by each collaborating collateral department. 2) Competency in scientific communication including writing and presentation. 3) Competency in scientific research.


Students will be co-advised by a faculty member of the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a faculty member from the collaborating department.  A student’s graduate committee would be composed of a minimum of two members from Mathematical Sciences, and one member representing the collaborating department.  Students would need to pass two comprehensive exams, one in statistics and one in the participating field.


As an example of how collateral departments would determine competency, the Department of Ecology has determined that competency in ecology can be demonstrated either by the completion of a collateral graduate degree in ecology (MS or PhD) or by completion of at least four graduate courses in ecology and a comprehensive exam.  Ecology would require a course from each of four categories:  1) philosophy and process of science; 2) population level ecology; 3) ecology at higher levels of organization such as community, ecosystem, or landscape scales; and 4) evolutionary ecology.

Initial Planned Capacity

To demonstrate both the demand for and the benefits of this unique program, the Ecological & Environmental Statistics Masters would be introduced in a low-cost format, using existing courses and supporting students with existing TA lines.  The program in this form could financially support six students at a time. 


Faculty commitment is essential to the success of any academic program.  Faculty from the Mathematical Sciences and collaborating departments will experience increased student participation in their courses, increased demands to serve on graduate committees, and increased seminar and journal club participation.  The Department of Mathematical Sciences has a number of excellent faculty interested in participating in the proposed Ecological & Environmental Statistics Masters program.  Drs. Steve Cherry, Jarrett Barber, Robert Boik, John Borkowski, and Jim Robison-Cox have all made commitments to contribute.  In the Department of Ecology Drs. Mark Taper, David Roberts, Daniel Goodman, Steve Kalinowski, and Jay Rotella are similarly eager to support this program.  Supporting LRES faculty include Drs. Bruce Maxwell, Lisa Graumlich, Cathy Zabinski, Lisa Rew, and David Brown.

Resources and Facilities

Substantial resources exist to support this program.  The Department of Mathematical Sciences has agreed to commit four existing Teaching Assistant lines to support Ecological & Environmental Statistics MS students and the Department of Ecology has contributed two Teaching Assistant lines.  Administrative support services would be contributed by the Department of Mathematical Sciences.  A substantial body of quantitative courses exists across campus, sufficient to give students considerable flexibility in satisfying the degree’s requirements.  These include but are not limited to:


Stat 410 Applied Multiple Regression

Stat 412 Analysis of Variance & Design of Experiments

Stat 420 Probability

Stat 424 Mathematical Statistics

Stat 437 Introduction To Applied Multivariate Analysis

Stat 438 Graphical Techniques In Data Analysis

Stat 439 Logistic Regression

Stat 449 Mixed Model Analysis

Stat 446 Sampling

Stat 500 Seminar

Stat 505 Linear Models

Stat 506 Advanced Regression Analysis

Stat 510 Statistical Consulting Seminar

Stat 520 Topics in Applied Statistics

Stat 522 Stochastic processes

Stat 524 Biostatistics

Stat 526 Experimental Design

Stat 528 Statistical Quality Control

Stat 530 Nonparametric And Resampling Methods

Stat 534 Spatial Data Analysis

Stat 537 Multivariate Analysis I

Stat 538 Multivariate Analysis II

Stat 539 Generalized Linear Models

Stat 570 Individual Problems

Stat 575 Research or Professional Paper/Project

Stat 578 Response Surface Methodology

Stat 580 Special Topics

Biol 504 Quantitative Biology

Biol 505 Environmental Analysis

Biol 506 Population Dynamics

Biol 509 Introduction to Practical Modeling

Biol 518 Parameter Estimation for Ecological Models

F&WL 502 Population and Habitat Analysis

LRES 425 Advanced Remote Sensing

LRES 535 Techniques of Spatial Analysis

Geog 411 Advanced Geographic Information Systems

Geog 501 GIS and Environmental Modeling

Fiscal Impact

Because this program will be initiated using existing courses, teaching assistant lines, and administrative support, there will be minimal cost to initiate this program.  New funding would be sought to support an Ecological Statistics Seminar series and to broadly advertise the program.  We anticipate that $3000/year would allow us to bring in two off-campus speakers per semester for the seminar series.  The Ecological & Environmental Statistics program is designed in part to attract high quality students to the program and the State.  We plan to develop an attractive and informative web presence.  In addition traditional advertisements will be placed in disciplinary journals and newsletters, and flyers distributed to biology, ecology, environmental science, mathematics, and statistics departments nationally.  Mailings will be targeted at faculty likely to be advising suitable undergraduates.  It would also be advisable to send mailings directly to undergraduates identified through GRE searches.  We anticipate that an energetic information dissemination program will cost $6000 over three years.  The Graduate Dean at MSU (Dean McLeod) has promised $2500 towards communication.

Long-term Goals and Growth Trajectory

This Ecological & Environmental Statistics Masters has been proposed with very modest costs as a demonstration venture.  We believe that once it is in place, a larger demand for and substantial benefits from the program will be rapidly demonstrated. At that point, we anticipate seeking additional funds both intramurally and extramurally to increase the quality and size of the program.  Some of our goals include courses specifically designed for the program jointly taught by faculty from more than one department, creation of a statistical consulting office associated with the program and instituting a PhD degree in Ecological & Environmental Statistics.  All of these goals are likely to require expenditures on new faculty lines and space.

Relationship to Overarching Priorities

Montana’s Needs and Interests

Montana’s economy is dominated by agriculture, mining, timber harvest, outdoor recreation and environmental tourism.  Thus there is a profound linkage between the health of our economy and ecological and environmental sciences. 

Montana Board of Regents Goals and Objectives

The Montana Board of Regents in their statement of goals and objectives actively encourages scientific development and technology transfer, interactive information systems, coordinated education and economic development.  All of these are strongly supported by the interdisciplinary program proposed. 


The Board of Regents also seeks “[t]o be responsive to market, employment, and economic development needs of the State and the nation.”  The ecological and environmental sciences are becoming increasingly quantitative.  As a consequence, our graduates must become increasingly quantitative to fill this new need.  Instituting an Ecological & Environmental Statistics program is a suitable response to these developments.

MSU Campus Mission

The MSU Campus Mission statement strongly echoes the Board of Regent’s goals, but emphasizes a “richly diverse learning environment,” the “dissemination of new knowledge,” and the integration of discovery and learning.  Thus, a new interdisciplinary program dedicated to helping students bridge gaps and to work and communicate across disciplinary boundaries in important fields is also supported by the campus mission.

Ecology and Environmental Sciences at MSU Vision Statement:

On February 14, 2005, the heads of the Department of Ecology, the Department of Land Resources & Environmental Sciences, and the Big Sky Institute presented to MSU Provost David Dooley a joint statement titled: A Vision and Strategy to Transform Ecology and Environmental Sciences at MSU.  The Ecological & Environmental Statistics Masters program proposed is an integral component of that vision.  The vision statement gives this degree proposal its earliest timeline benchmark (Spring 2005).  We quote from the vision statement below:


Graduate Emphases in Statistics.  Many of the proposed research initiatives are deeply quantitative and computational. Further, advanced knowledge of statistical design and analysis is critical to many aspects of ecological and environmental sciences research. MSU already excels in the teaching and research of statistical ecology and environmental statistics. To encourage our students to extend their quantitative training and to obtain maximum competitiveness following degree completion, graduate students trained in many EES fields will need formal recognition of their advanced training in these areas. In collaboration with the Statistics faculty in Mathematical Sciences we are currently working on two synergistic proposals for graduate statistical education. For students seeking graduate degrees in fields within EES, we propose the development of a Graduate Minor in Statistics to complement their central degree. For students pursuing a Ph.D. in EES we propose a collateral Master's Degree in Ecological and Environmental Statistics. The proposal describing this program has been under active development and faculty vetting by the Ecology, LRES, and Mathematical Sciences departments, and is currently well-developed. These programs would serve to distinguish our students from graduates of peer institutions, recognize the extraordinary expertise of the faculty in this area at MSU, and require only a modest amount of new resources to implement.