Is ecology as dull as dishwater? Why fieldwork matters.

Fieldwork has taken me to the tropical rainforests of Indonesia, the Peruvian Amazon, the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo, it has taken me to the deserts of Namibia and the savannas in Tanzania, it has shown me the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire and the expansive North Yorkshire moors. I have held caiman in the Amazon, counted wildebeest in the savanna, caught monitor lizards in the rainforest, tagged bats in the pennines and collected ants from the tallest trees in the tropics. Had I known that studying Ecology would bring me these wild opportunities? No. Ecology at school was dull. Ecology at school still is dull. Pyramids of numbers, energy flow and eutrophication remain the staples of ecology. It doesn’t excite the imagination. The applications of ecological knowledge to research positions in all of the word’s wonderful biomes is rarely highlighted. For most, fieldwork at school hasn’t progressed much further than counting dandelion leaves in a school field using quadrats along a tape measured transect. Mention the ecology based lesson objectives to the students and the classroom groans with boredom. So how has it come to this when my actual experience of ecology following school has been so much different?

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Of those students in my classroom who wished to pursue science at university the vast majority aspired to a degree in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry or biochemical sciences. During 6 years of teaching A-Level biology I scrutinised hundreds of UCAS personal statements applying for a biology related degree. However I can count on my hands, and mostly remember, those students who applied for a zoology, ecology, marine biology or environmental science related degree. In the college which I taught, each year up to 1,000 students would be studying biology at AS or A level. Mostly highly motivated and engaged young adults yet recruiting students to participate in a 5 day field trip to the FSC centre at Malham Tarn was a hard sell. Even with costs subsidised by the college and from FSC grants many were uninterested. It would cost each student less than £100, tuition, accommodation, transport and all food included. The take up? 7 students, less than 1% of the total cohort. Participation in further-flung field trips abroad had a slightly higher uptake of around 15 students. But few could afford the £2,000 plus costs to travel to Costa Rica or Honduras for 10 days. Why the reluctance? Perhaps an ill-conceived perception that a biology field trip to North Yorkshire would be boring or uncool, when social status is of utmost importance at 16 and 17. If only they knew the adventures that could be had by acquiring such a skill-set. Asking students to commit to a week-long residential trip to do something entirely foreign perhaps was too big a step. Had those students been exposed to fieldwork on a more regular basis then perhaps participation in a field trip would have been higher.

The expansive North Yorkshire moors around Malham Tarn. A beautiful location for fieldwork.

Back in 2004 a report by Steve Tilling from the FSC highlighted a decline in fieldwork provision at A-Level with teachers citing pressure to teach to the curriculum, a lack of field work opportunities within the curriculum, a problem of timetabling field work and costs as prohibitive. All completely valid reasons. The pressure on teachers and their students to achieve high grades with minimal teaching hours is a problem still to be addressed. The new A-Level biology specification does include compulsory practical elements that have to be taught, however it does not state that fieldwork is compulsory. Yet it is important to remember that, as one person put it, ‘not all science happens in a test tube and young people need to realise this’. One solitary statement in the specification that points towards fieldwork is the ‘investigation into abundance and distribution of organisms in a habitat’. Dandelions and quadrats spring to mind. Although of course it is up to the teacher to be creative with their methods and to inspire. Yet the timetabling and cost practicalities, especially in a large college teaching 1,000 biology students, throw up vast logistical problems of offering anything other than dandelions and quadrats. Highlighted by the report is the far better provision of fieldwork offered by A-Level geography compared to biology. So, many years after the publication of these findings perhaps it is time for biologists to turn to their counterparts in geography and discover exactly how they are able to achieve such better provision. A survey currently run by the British Ecological Society is questioning whether fieldwork provision has changed as a result of the new specification. Having left teaching on the introduction of this new specification, I hope to find that it has.

Is school field work always going to be counting the humble dandelion?

Biology teachers are equipped with a number of skills yet fieldwork may not be one. Qualifications range across the spectrum of specialisations including genetics, microbiology, biochemistry and physiology to name a few. Not all teachers will have the experience of fieldwork to pass onto their students or the confidence to deliver it. A 2007 report recommended that teacher training providers should equip trainee teachers with the skills necessary to teach outdoor secondary science. During my time as a mentor to trainee teachers at no point was this brought up as an area to develop. Ten years on and to my knowledge there has been no inclusion of this in the trainee teacher experience. In fact there is no longer any mention in the teachers’ standards of excursions or teaching outside the classroom. The same points were raised again in a further report in 2014, highlighting the value and challenges of fieldwork provision. Unfortunately it appears not many are listening.

Much of the experimental and observational fieldwork I have done can be achieved far closer to home than Borneo, similar questions and methods can be applied in the back garden. If it is not feasible to take the students to the field, to train teachers appropriately, to find space in a busy timetable and funds in a limited and shrinking pot, then alternative routes to introducing fieldwork need to be sought. Why does homework always have to be essays and exam questions? Could it not be that students discover ecology and the accompanying methods in their own back yard or park? Much can be said for the benefits of exploration of the scientific method and independent data collection in the field, be it ecology in the city landscape or in the back garden.

A Polyrhachis ant taking the bait. Ants are ubiquitous and can be studied almost anywhere.

Fieldwork is not only integral to subject knowledge, lending itself to planning investigative variables, data handling exercises and statistical analysis but it is central to recruitment for the subject and perhaps more importantly health and well-being. Access to the outdoors has been linked to lower levels of stress. With stats such as 1 in 4 students suffering from a mental health problem, 1 in 12 teenagers self-harming and 1 in 10 suffering from depression, stress and anxiety are far too common amongst young people. The pressure of study and academic expectations cited as being a key reason for such high levels of stress. The inclusion of fieldwork may be a small light in a challenging time for students. ‘This is your brain on nature’ by the National Geographic highlights how spending time in nature can be good for health and well-being. The studies in this article found that being closer to nature and accessing green spaces can be linked to lower levels of mental distress and fewer stress hormones circulating the blood. Perhaps the argument that fieldwork should be compulsory as it’s integral to the curriculum should be shifted to that it is integral to student welfare. Yet for change to happen data is needed. Evidence to show that fieldwork is a necessary part of education.

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