Learning by doing: A prof’s perspective

Maddox Cove, NL (Photo by NCC)

Maddox Cove, NL (Photo by NCC)

June 29, 2018 | by Yolanda Wiersma

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question adults often ask young children. Through high school and university, many students start to think about the answer to this question in terms of what kind of career or job they want to pursue when they are done school. Many of them have an affinity for natural spaces and wild species and want to do something to help “save the world.” The hard part for them when they get to university is that there aren’t many courses in “environmentalism” or “saving the planet.”

Some courses, such as wildlife biology, ecology and conservation biology, might help them to learn some key concepts for their hoped-for career, but when it comes to learning how to work in conservation, they often don’t get what they are looking for. Part of the challenge in providing this type of coursework is that most professors doing research and teaching in universities have little to no experience working directly in conservation. Even if courses relate to conservation, the content is often more theoretical than practical.

To address this gap, about 10 years ago, my department at Memorial University of Newfoundland created a new course in conservation biology II: conservation in practice. I have had the privilege of teaching this course multiple times. One of the guiding documents in the development of the course for me has been an article published by a group of graduate students in the journal Conservation Biology. This article (Blickley et al., 2013) highlights the essential skills that students need for careers in conservation.

The authors compiled the list of skills by scouring job ads for the types of positions they envisioned holding after graduation, and by interviewing conservation professionals in a range of sectors. The article found that many required skills are not taught in university. It also showed that soft skills, like team work, communication and organizational ability, can be difficult for students to formally learn in school.

Students using a guide book to identify the species that they are looking at and then entering their observations into iNaturalist using their smartphone. (Photo by NCC)

Students using a guide book to identify the species that they are looking at and then entering their observations into iNaturalist using their smartphone. (Photo by NCC)

One of the ways I help students gain some of these important soft skills in my conservation biology course is to partner with conservation professionals and have the students work on a real-world project. Past project partners have included federal and provincial government agencies, an urban park management board and local environmental non-governmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

Students play the role of “consultants” to the partners who are their “clients.” Most years, the students are presented with the project as a request for proposals, often with very few specific guidelines and little scope, which mimics real-world situations. Then the students work in small groups to develop a proposal for the specific product or activities that they will embark on to fulfill the client’s goals. Once their proposed project is approved (by me, for academic rigor, and by the client to ensure the end product is potentially useful), they work independently to carry out the project.

They may find themselves doing biological inventories, mapping exercises, human dimensions surveys, data mining, extensive literature searches or creating citizen science projects or K-12 curriculum materials. Class time is devoted to modules that help the students develop skills in communication, working with humans, statistics and GIS skills.

Maddox Cove, NL (Photo by NCC)

Maddox Cove, NL (Photo by NCC)

This past winter, I partnered with NCC's Newfoundland and Labrador office to create a term project. NCC staff members Meghan Lafferty and Julia Lawler enthusiastically jumped on board with me and helped develop a list of projects for the nearby Maddox Cove property. The students’ tasks contributed to the property’s management plan, including developing curricular materials for K-12 students, developing a partnership plan for this property, and completing a biodiversity inventory and a survey on human attitudes and values in the small community adjacent to the property.

The term started off with a field trip to Maddox Cove. Megan and Julia met with individual teams as needed to guide their project development. All projects had defined milestones that had to be submitted to me as part of their course grade. Each group submitted a final report and delivered a final presentation to the class and NCC.

Students listen in on a lesson about community attitudes towards conservation near Maddox Cove Nature Reserve, NL (Photo by NCC)

Students listen in on a lesson about community attitudes towards conservation near Maddox Cove Nature Reserve, NL (Photo by NCC)

Each fall, as I contact local conservation professionals, I wonder how this will go. The time and effort to reach out to partners and to scope a feasible new project (something that can be done in a 12-week winter course) takes time and legwork. There are years when I wonder whether if it wouldn’t be easier to assign a term paper on a topic where I know the students will easily find material at the library. However, the process is the most important part of the assignment. Ideally, the end product will be of high quality and useful to the partners. But the main goal is for the students to gain skills in initiating and managing a project from start to end, working with a client and with peers, while learning about a local conservation issue in-depth.

The first and last individual assignments in the course required students to reflect on their skills. In the last one, I specifically ask the students to reflect on what the team project taught them. This year, many of them spoke about the value of learning about how NCC operates. The ones who worked most closely with Megan and Julia appreciated learning more about the kinds of jobs they might hope to hold in a few years. The students were interested in learning about NCC properties and in learning more about the ones near their home towns. Overall, I was thrilled with the projects this year and will continue to pursue this kind of learning opportunity with my students in the future, hopefully again with NCC!

Yolanda Wiersma (Photo courtesy of Yolanda Wiersma)

About the Author

Yolanda Wiersma is an associate professor at Memorial University, St. John's Newfoundland.

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