Rebecca S. Burton, PhD
Professor & Chair

Dept. of Biology
Alverno College
PO Box 343922
Milwaukee, WI 53234

Teaching Interests:

students I teach ecology, animal behavior, zoology, human anatomy & physiology, environmental science, non-majors and majors biology, and science methods. When I design a course, I ask myself: What do the students need to know? What do the students want to know? What must they be able to DO with their knowledge? I use these questions to help formulate outcomes for my class. Then I design assessments and assignments that are as similar to actual practice as I can make them. I develop criteria so that students know their performance targets, and design learning experiences so that they will have the knowledge and skills they need to meet criteria.


I really enjoy designing learning experiences that help students to teach themselves, with me as a guide rather than a lecturer. My goal is to help my students go beyond mastering certain concepts, to developing strategies for analyzing and solving problems in any area. As a member of the Problem Solving Ability Department, I have an opportunity to work on this with colleagues from many disciplines.

My involvement with the Alverno Latin American Studies Initiative allowed me to travel to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay in the summer of 2004.  In 2005, I was fortunate to China with my colleagues from the Alverno Asian Studies Initiative. In 2006 I travelled to Costa Rica with colleagues and students.  These projects and my own travels to Russia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands!) have helped me to infuse my courses with a more international perspective.

Research Interests:

Sedgwick Research I'm primarily interested in behavioral and evolutionary ecology. Specifically, I have studied ways in which animals cope with variable environments. For my doctoral research I examined winter fasting and adaptive weight loss in eastern woodrats (Neotoma floridana).

During my postdoctoral fellowship I studied seasonal changes in body mass, metabolism, and immunocompetence of dusky-footed woodrats (N. fuscipes) at Sedgwick Reserve. Some of my colleagues at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis extended this research and analyzed den characteristics and use patterns. This has enabled us to make recommendations about placement of artificial dens during relocation efforts involving endangered subspecies of dusky-footed woodrats (N. fuscipes riparia). I also also conducted a survey of the mammals of Sedgwick.

In addition, I was part of a team that was experimenting with management strategies to encourage native plants found on California's serpentine refuges to reinvade the alluvial soil, which is now covered with introduced grasses.

Of my research papers, my favorite was based on an experiment to examine the effect of immune challenge on hibernation in Turkish hamsters (Mesocricetus brandti). It appears that the hamsters spend more time in torpor if they are exposed to a novel antigen during the hibernation season. This mechanism may allow them to defend themselves against pathogens, which can't proliferate at low temperatures.

I'm currently researching factors that influence undergraduate students' ability to learn from biology textbooks. Is it the use of technical terms? Is it the length of words and sentences, as many reading indices assume? Are the factors different for college biology than for other kinds of reading material? These are the questions that really interest me right now.


I have studied in Washington, Montana, and Kansas. I did my postdoctoral fellowship at NCEAS. I am primarily trained in behavior, ecology, and vertebrate biology, but I have had additional work in immunology and education. For more information, see my C.V..

Community Service:

I am on the advisory board for the Urban Ecology Center.
I volunteer for the UCSB "Science Online" program in which K-12 students and teachers can ask scientists questions via email.
I have created a series of Inquiry-based science activities for students of all ages.
I had invaluable experiences as a Girl Scout, so I have continued my involvement with this excellent organization. I have held ecological workshops for the Utah Girl Scout Council's Camp Cloud Rim. This summer I will once again be helping to coordinate an Alverno College/Girl Scouts of Wisconsin, Southeast collaboration: a week-long event called Camp iGirl. I have been working with this event since we started it in 2001, though it has undergone changes in names and curriculum over the years.
We "foster parent" animals in our home for the Wisconsin Humane Society. This is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy animals while improving their chances of successful adoption. If you love pets but can't make a long term commitment to one, this program is perfect. We already have three permanent cats and a dog, but they've adjusted.

Last update: 1/13 by Rebecca Burton, Dept. of Biology, Alverno College