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.

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