Saturday, 12 October 2013

Making Space For Nature

Today we had an outdoor meeting with the wildlife explorers. We spent a cold grey the morning at Tophill Low nature reserve where the warden (our friend Richard) helped us to make a space for nature. First we spent some time in his workshop looking at the tools we would use (hand saws and lopers) and the safety equipment we would need (helmets and gloves) and we talked about what we were planning to do.

Richard wanted us to create a spce for nature - specifically he wanted us to create a clearing in a rather crowded Sycamore plantation. Cutting down trees might seem like the very opposite of practical conservation work but Richard explained to us that we needed to thin the plantation so that light could reach the woodland floor allowing the ground flora to re-establish itself next spring.
We chose an area of the plantation that had a 60 year old Oak, some Ash an Elder and a Hawthorne in it but which was mostly really dense Sycamore - a few cm to 20cm in diameter and between 3m and 8m tall. Richard showed us how to work out which way a tree "wanted to fall" and how to cut it so that it did. We worked hard for about 2 hours and cleared a really big area.
The trees that we cut down didn't go to waste. We piled them up to make another space for nature. We will come back in the spring to see what has moved in - Richard fully expects us to find a Wren nest there. Over post-fieldwork hot chocolate we talked about what we had done. Everyone enjoyed the morning - but the main theme that came out was that we were proud of what we had achieved.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Fieldwork sucks!

Today my colleague, Julie Furnell, and I submitted a grant report. That is always a good feeling, particularly when you are ahead of deadline and you can confidently state that yes you have achieved your stated aims and no there were no budgetary variances to explain! The project, Fieldwork sucks (or to give it its full title – Fieldwork sucks: Identifying barriers and overcoming prejudices to enable engagement and enhance employability amongst reluctant biologists) was funded by the UK Higher Education Academy, under their Teaching Development Grants scheme. These grants are not large, but they are sufficient to enable jobbing academics like me to evaluate their practice in order that it might be enhanced in a way that has a positive impact upon aspects of the teaching and learning that takes place in their own department (and through subsequent dissemination hopefully at a wider level). The work we have completed is only the first stage of an ongoing body of work involving our group that will be evaluated and hopefully disseminated through publication during the next few years, but I thought it might be useful to blog about our main outcomes today.
Don’t get me wrong – I do not agree with the sentiment of our project title – quite the opposite. I wholeheartedly believe that fieldwork is great, particularly because it is an excellent vehicle for the delivery of employability enhancing skills. However, research supporting the value of fieldwork consistently identifies, but then ignores an important group: students who fail to engage effectively and who may therefore fail to benefit fully from fieldwork.  I just don’t think we can afford to ignore these non-engagers anymore.
An outcome of our project is that we have confirmed that in spite of our valuing fieldwork (as tutors and practising field biologists) it is crucial that we recognise and respect the broad range of views of our students.  This is a point that I made in my blog last week when I pointed out that it is important that we remember that the students we teach today should not be confused with the students we think we remember we were ourselves. In this context I think that we have to accept that not all students identify with fieldwork in the way that we do. Nor do they necessarily “hear us” when we explain to them that fieldwork is good for them.  Through discussion with past and present students we have achieved an increased understanding of the barriers to engagement with fieldwork that affect some members of our student body.  We have also realised that simply providing these students with a list of reasons to engage is insufficient. We need to provide these students with something tangible. From our discussions with graduates and students we have realised that helping students to look beyond the discipline towards transferable skills that are sought by employers might be the hook that we need. Having done so we have also realised that many of our students currently lack an ability to translate the things that they do in the field into the skills that they need to present in their CVs.  For example one student described himself as having "worked efficiently within his group to collect data in a timely fashion in unfamiliar surroundings and helped other members of the team to function effectively" (my emphasis). But he didn’t realise that this statement was evidence that he had demonstrated effective team working skills (and possibly in this case leadership), good time management, and adaptability.
So with a group of student interns we have developed an active strategy to enable students to gain an insight into the benefits they might derive from positive engagement with fieldwork beyond the acquisition of discipline skills (and associated grades).  Central to this strategy is a pdf/paper-based learning resource, conceived and authored by our student interns, that will be trialled across our department during our summer field courses. Once students have used the resource we will evaluate, and if necessary tweak, it. At that stage I’ll blog some more about it and we will make it available more widely.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Looking back, and looking forwards

This week I really enjoyed my job. I got to spend the best part of two days in conversation with a group of like minded individuals all keen to share their opinions on a topic that mattered to us all: becoming a better teacher.

I was working with friends and colleagues, Nathan Pike (the Higher Education Academy Biology lead), Lesley Morrell (@bioscience mum, a fellow Hull Biologist) and Neil Morris (@LT_tech_HE) to host an event on behalf of the HEA for 18 academics new to teaching. The event participants came from across the UK HE sector, and had had their own educations in a wide range of international settings (curiously the imminent Eurovision Song Contest was a key topic over dinner!). But they had at least one thing in common - they all to some extent described starting out in teaching as being difficult because it was sometimes terrifying, always involved too much to do in too little time, and was at times a pretty isolating experience. My favourite explanation of the feeling that being new can engender was that in the first year you work hard to get through it but don't realise you might not be getting it right. Then in the second year you know what you are doing isn't right but don't know what to do about it, and then in the third year it all falls into place! Beautifully encapsulated by one of the participants as being unknowingly incompetent; knowingly incompetent; and, knowingly competent (thanks for that Rachel).

And over the course of the conversations that we shared I began to realise that when I started out myself I would have probably thought and experienced the same things - but I needed this event to be reminded of that fact. 

This realisation that we need perhaps to reflect on where both we and our students are on our personal learning journey when we think about our teaching is one of the themes that I regularly include in workshops with new teachers. It is an important part of my own philosophy of teaching. Essentially I think that we have to realise that our 'expert status' today is different to that of the students that we work with. 

At one level that's easy because we can see the difference between ourselves as teachers and them as students very clearly. But that isn't the comparison that we need to make. Too often I think we are tempted to compare our students to what we imagine we were as students ourselves - and of course all too often we then bemoan the fact that things ain't what they used to be. I think though that it is essential that we remember that we were not average students (if we were we wouldn't be HE teachers now).

 Of course I realise that there is no such thing as the average student, all students are individuals, but the point I'm trying to make is that perhaps by comparing them to an idealised image of ourselves we may sometimes have an unrealistic expectation of our students.

 Can we really remember what we were like as students? Are we comparing like with like when we compare the 18 year old product of the current school system with ourselves (in my case the product of a system 25+ years ago). Things certainly aren't want they used to be, for many students I suspect they are a lot tougher than we realise. 

What is important surely isn't how students (and new teachers) compare to some rose tinted ideal of yesteryear, rather that we do our very best to use our experience and enthusiasm to learn in partnership with them to support their learning - wherever that might take them.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Mesolithic meanderings

This weekend was wildlife explorers weekend. The group was a little smaller than usual, but lack of numbers was compensated for by the increased enthusiasm a new site and a new local expert generated. We spent a morning in the company of Tim Burkinshaw (@carrswetland), the wetlands officer responsible for Cayton Carrs. The Carrs is a low lying agricultural landscape to the south of Scarborough- quite flat and I have to say based upon first impressions perhaps not the most exciting of places to visit, sandwiched as it is between the North Yorks Moors, The Yorkshire Wolds and the coast. But first impresses are wrong.

As we meandered across the landscape (noting Buzzards and Grey Partridge and stopping to discuss the arrival of spring migrants - Swift, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler) Tim provided a wealth of information to bring the site to life. Tim is a natural outdoor educator - he didn't stand and lecture to the kids - he used the outdoors and their natural curiosity to engage them (and we accompanying adults) in an exploration of the site at a whole range of levels. 

So we started by talking about the networks of ditches that drain the landscape. We heard about peat deposits shrinking through drying and about the problems that causes for road buliders and for wildlife. Then we heard about the wetland project and how it was managing drainage and encouraging farmers to shift their agriculture (from arable to pasture) and how that linked to conservation because wet fields provided wintering habitat for waterfowl and waders, and breeding habitat for a whole range of farmland birds, while the ditches themselves harboured populations of otters and water voles.

Thinking more about the ditches Tim explained that the dead straight 9 mile course of the river Hertford had once meandered for 13 miles across the landscape - but had been straightened in the early 1800s by POWs from the Napoleonic wars. So now we were thinking about the past not the present - providing the kids with a sense of the changing nature of landscape. With that in mind Tim paused close to some mounds of earth - the site of an archaeological dig. Here the remains of the oldest know house in Europe have been found. This was used to raise several new issues, firstly current drying of the peat threatens the preservation of the site - so we are linked in a real way to our past. Second the soil we stood on was no longer peaty - it was grey, almost white, and powdery - sediments laid down in a Mesolithic lake. So this house was on the shores of a lake! After some impromptu face painting using a pigment made by mixing the clay with water Tim showed the kids some pictures of artefacts from the site - harpoons and a ceremonial headdress with Red Deer Antlers and we talked about how our stone age ancestors might have lived. This discussion was great. The children brought together their prior knowledge, the information that they had gained with Tim, and their imaginative inferences and together we "created" a new landscape around ourselves, we imagined a Mesolithic wetland and speculated that through sympathetic management a new rich wetland shared by people and wildlife a new wetland was an exciting possibility.

Here are a few pictures of the day:

Here Tim is helping us to identify stones in glacial till. We're thinking about the fact that the gabro we've found may well have been brought here from Northern Scotland by the ice sheet.

Visualising the extent of the lake with the dig behind Tim.

Face paints made from ancient lake mud!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Art from nature

Recently the members of the Wildlife Explorer group that I help out at had a morning at South Landing on Flamborough Head. We like this site. It now has everything we need for a morning out; a car park, a classroom (the new Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Living Seas Center) toilets and a place to wash our hands. But best of all it has a walk though woodland that takes us down to the beach.

During our visit we looked and listened for signs of spring. We saw Celendine and Gorse in flower (the latter smelled fantastic), we saw Swallows flying in off the sea and we heard Chiff Chaff singing on newly established territories.

The beach at South Landing is great. It's covered with chalk cobbles and pebbles of various sizes and once a year when we visit we have great fun making art form the things we find on the beach. I never cease to be amazed by the imagination of the kids and rather than try to describe their efforts I.m just going to post the pictures and let you make up your own minds. (A penguin, a guinea pig, a big fish chasing little fish, a puffin, a really big shark, a happy fish).

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Spare time?

In my "spare time" I volunteer with my local wildlife explorer group ( my wife Lisa volunteers too and both of the kids take part - it's a real family affair). Wildlife explorers are junior members of the RSPB and one or twice a month we get together for a few hours after school in our local library or we meet at a local nature reserve or public park to learn together about wildlife and wildlife conservation. We play games, carry out fundraising activities, collect data for schemes like the RSPB big garden survey and sometimes we carry out practical conservation work.

This weekend we got together on a foggy and frosty morning at Tophill Low Nature Reserve to help our friend Richard the warden to make a Grass Snake Refuge. Grass snakes are really common on the reserve and we often see them basking on the piles of twigs and straw that Richard provides for them. So to make ours we had to cut fresh willow twigs and trim them to size to make a base for the pile. And then heap straw onto it. It took the whole morning and it was great fun - as the selection of pictures at the end of the post clearly show!

It was also a valuable learning experience. Richard taught us something about grass snake ecology and we learned about practical habitat management. We talked about working safely and learned how to use tools properly. We learned a lot from one another about team work and about communication skills, and we learned that it's ok to have fun while you work! And I say we because I do mean we. The children learned a lot, but we learned with them.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Learning out of the classroom

Today Margaret Boyd and I hosted a group of colleagues, teachers, students and other interested friends to share with them  the highs, lows and perhaps most importantly some of the results of our research project "Harnessing the value of biodiversity". Oh,  there was cake too.

Over the last two years we have worked with 8 primary school teachers and more than 200 children aged 9/10 to explore the potential value to both tea hers and children of a short student centred field based learning exercise. The exercise involved the children exploring a local habitat and collecting, identifying, describing, observing and photographing the organisms that they found there. One school looked into their pond (a pond not used for learning - infact the  school paid to visit a similar pond some miles away because that must be better!!!)' another focused on invertebrates in a garden area, one looked at a local shore and another looked at the plants in their school grounds. The children then collaborated to produce a photographic field guide to their chosen location. A book that they were told would be used by their peers to carry out their own investigations. This has happened!

You can read about our work at our project webpage and you can find papers our group have published about this and related work at our website. But essentially today we discussed the following main findings:

1. There are lost of reasons that teaches don't take their class out doors; cost, risk, expertise, school culture, concerns about behaviour etc etc. But these barriers are not insurmountable, nor do they apply to all teachers in all situations. It was great to hear today about the ways that teachers we've worked with have found ways to overcome barriers like using local resources to minimise costs but maximise time in the field or learning with children rather than teaching them. It was even better to hear teachers describing the ways that they have continued to take the children out as a result of working with us, or even better that they have encouraged their colleagues to.

2. Fieldwork promoted engagement and ameliorated the behaviour of some children. Children told us that they learned about local biodiversity (good job too!). But they also talked about learning to work with one another and learning to work in a new way with the adults teaching them. They clearly enjoyed the exercise and thought of themselves as scientists and experts.

3. Children who completed the fieldwork exercise tended to score higher in standardised science and literacy tests than other children in their year group who hadn't taken part. The analyses are still ongoing but it looks like there is a lasting benefit to having taken part in fieldwork that is related to the fact that real experience consolidates enhanced memories and enables children to access key components of literacy (descriptives, jargon, similes etc.).

Leading this project has confirmed some of my preconceptions about the benefits of fieldwork but it has also changed the way that I think about the benefits of fieldwork too. In particular over the last two years I've started to think less about teachers as a group of colleagues and children as a population and then by extension about the average teacher and the average child (although when it comes to some analyses this is of course appropriate and essential). Instead I've started to think more about the diversity of individual teachers experiences and the way that individuals will react to barriers in their specific context. And about individual children and the fact that different levels of benefit may be experienced by different children. I can see this becoming the focus of my thinking and my research efforts for the near future.