Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Lab plus field - a placement in environmental education

By Alina Tarnawska, BSc Conservation Biology

I had always planned on doing a placement year (the option was one of the reasons I initially chose to study at Plymouth) so I wanted to make the most of my 6 months by getting as much different experience as possible. 

In October 2013 I started a 6 month placement based in Plymouth University LABplus, an open access laboratory for undergraduate Science and Environment students. LABplus is an interactive space where students have access to resources that are specifically designed to facilitate learning of key concepts and principles directly related to their modules and courses. I had decided to split my time between helping develop new resources for the biology students in LABplus, volunteering with The Plymouth Woodland Project and a variety of school events as a student ambassador.

I knew by the beginning of my second year at Plymouth that I wanted to get experience in environmental education and public science projects. Being part of these types of events has always been enjoyable for me and it was definitely something that I wanted to pursue in my placement year. I was offered this placement (or the chance to “create my own” placement of this theme) by Paul Ramsay, my tutor, and I relished the opportunity to have so much control over the types of topics and events that I would be a part of.

Over my placement I have helped put together some of the resource boxes for biology students up in LABplus. I have had involvement with many of these boxes but there were three that I saw completely through from initial contact with a member of academic staff to the finished product being available in LABplus:
  • An introduction to fern identification
  • An introduction to forensic entomology
  • A self-guided walk looking at winter tree identification

Making these boxes was a great way for me to learn about all of these different topics and, being a student myself, helped me to appreciate the type of language to use and which concepts needed thorough explanation. Making the resource boxes can be quite a lengthy process, as they are a collaboration between members of academic staff (who requires the box to help facilitate a key concept of principle for a module or course) and a range of technical staff, principally Jane Yea the LABplus technician. During the making of these boxes I learnt how to cast invertebrate specimens in resin (a rather time consuming process!) as well as how to create the information booklets and put all the information as well as any supplementary materials i.e. identification keys, useful journal articles and specimen samples in the box in clear and instructive way. 

The work I have done with the outreach team as a student ambassador has tied in very well with the work I have done in LABplus as it is often used as a venue for science activities and the outreach team have several resources up in LABplus for their school groups. As a student ambassador I have had great opportunities to teach young students about biology and ecology and on several occasion I have been given the chance to organise and run the events myself or sometimes with another ambassador to help out.  These sessions are the most fun as you have the choice of what to teach and how to get the students interested. I have mainly run these sessions for secondary school students over a range of ages and abilities. The location of these sessions varies from LABplus to other places on campus and sometimes involves travelling to the school and delivering the workshop or activity there.  

The Plymouth Woodland Project is a heritage lottery funded project aimed at getting people in Plymouth to undertake citizen science surveys and raise awareness of the local woodlands in the community. My work with the Plymouth Woodland Project was mostly based around school visits and public events though I was invited to take part in their spring steering group meeting which was a great look “behind the scenes” at how the project is run. I have helped run countless school activities both in the classroom and in some of the local woodlands, these sessions can take on a variety of topics from life cycles and food webs to leaf and invertebrate identification. What I enjoyed most in these sessions was the variety of not only topics but levels of ability; I have worked with children of all ages and even helped on a few teacher training exercises. The school sessions were all great fun and really get you to think on your feet as you never know what questions children will come up with, but at the same time they are very rewarding as you get to see the children really learning and enjoying to learn about their natural environment.  The public sessions and activities I have helped with are more challenging mainly because you never know who will come or how many of them will come, so being able to cater for a wide range of ages and experience is essential for these activities.

Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my placement and although it has been hard work and sometimes very long days and weekends! I feel I have gained so much new experience in working with students as well as working with other science communicators. A placement is something I would definitely recommend to any current first or second year student, and this placement is perfect for anyone like me, who wants to get involved in science communication and environmental education. 

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