Decisions, Decisions...Global Change Fellows Learn About SDM!

 Oct 13, 2015    by Geneva Gray

Now that summer is a fleeting memory, a new Global Change Fellow reflects on how she came to meet her fellow Fellows!

Early August is a beautiful time to visit Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The Southeast Climate Science Center (SE CSC) 2015-2016 Global Change Fellows got to enjoy the West Virginia air while attending a Structured Decision Making (SDM) course at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC). The week-long course introduced these Global Change Fellows to the process of SDM through lecture, activities, and teamwork. 

Structured decision making is a tool that creates a logical and clear decision process for conservation management (SDM can also be applied to any situation where a decision needs to be made such as purchasing a car.)

SDMVisualization of the SDM process. Image:

It guides you through six clear steps that lay out transparent problems and objectives in order to consider alternatives and consequences. (If you go with a fuel efficient vehicle will you still be able to tow your bikes?) Finally, decision makers can optimize in order to arrive at an action plan. (Let’s go with a larger hybrid vehicle!) Conservation plans are notorious for being multifaceted problems with environmental, economic, and even political objectives to consider. The SDM process provides a framework that can help multiple (and sometimes conflicting) decision makers come to a well-reasoned decision and alternatives that take into account different potential pathways. (For example, instead of buying a new car, maybe I should take the bus…)

The course I attended at NCTC was Introduction to Structured Decision Making. This included in-lecture coursework, several group meetings after-class, and optional networking events, all while surrounded by a conservationist’s paradise. Every room and outdoor space gave opportunities to learn about successful environmental restoration efforts and trailblazing conservationists. Nearly every aspect of NCTC encouraged learning and conservation. For a geeky, nature-lover like me, it felt more like a vacation than anything else!

Black-footed ferretMy capstone project centered on reintroduction incentives for the Black-footed ferret. Image:

One important feature of this course was the capstone project. Before the course, participants were asked to submit a problem they were facing in their professional life. These problems ranged from prairieland management options to office budget concerns. From those problems, six projects were selected by the instructors to be the in-course practice capstone problems. This hands-on learning approach helped solidify the key concepts in the SDM process. At the end of course, participants presented on their group projects. And of course, those lucky six students whose projects were picked at the beginning got valuable input on a problem they were facing. If you are interested in learning more about SDM, NCTC offers video resources of their course online here (

The SDM process is used frequently in conservation communities, and I am eager to start applying the framework and concepts to my research. As an applied climatologist, I work with professionals unfamiliar with climate data and global models. My research involves creating a clear and understandable way to use downscaled climate data. I hope to implement the SDM process in order to weigh the pros and cons of each climate data set in order to create a transparent decision process for ecosystem and estuarine modelers.

This course was more than a fantastic opportunity to learn and build our resumes. It was also a great opportunity to network with the scientists and managers later in their careers. Most nights, I along with the other course participants and instructors, were in the social lounge enjoying each other’s company over a pint of local beer. Incoming Global Change Fellows got a great chance to get to know each other and start building great working friendships. I know I made some great friends and connections that week!

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SE CSC Global Change Fellows and NCSU affiliates who completed the NCTC course “Introduction to Decision Making.”