Category Archives: Teaching matters

An inordinate fondness for biodiversity – a visit behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum

Last week  (13th February) I traveled with the MSc Entomology students to the Natural History Museum, London.  As part of their course they are taken behind the scenes and meet some of the curators and their favourite beasts.  This one of my favourite course trips and although I have made the pilgrimage for many years I always find something new to marvel at as well as reacquainting myself with some of my old favourites.  After an early start (0645) we arrived exactly on time (for a change), 10.30, at the Museum site in South Kensington.  I always have mixed feelings about South Kensington, having spent twenty years of my life commuting to Imperial College, just up the road from the museum.  I loved teaching on the Applied Ecology course I ran, but over the years the working atmosphere in the Department became really toxic* and I was extremely glad to move to my present location, Harper Adams University.  After signing in, which with twenty students took some time, Erica McAlister (@flygirl) led us through the thronged galleries (it was half term) to the staff

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

areas, where the research, identification and curating takes place.  Our first port of call was the Diptera where Erica regaled us with lurid tales of flies, big and small, beneficial and pestiferous.

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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Any one fancy cake for tea?  Kungu cake, made from African gnats

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Early advisory poster

As we left to move on to the Hymenopteran, hosted by David Notton, I noticed this classic poster warning against mosquitoes.  David chose bees as the main focus of his part of the tour, which as four of the students will be doing bee-based research projects was very apt.

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Admiring the bees

Whilst the students were engrossed with the bees I did a bit of fossicking and was amused to find that tobacco boxes were obviously a preferred choice by Scandinavian Hymenopterists in which to send their specimens to the museum.

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

Next was that most eminent of Coleopterists, Max @Coleopterist Barclay who as usual enthralled the students and me, with stories of

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Max Barclay demonstrating a Lindgren funnel and talking about ‘fossilised’ dung balls

beetles large and small, anecdotes of Darwin and Wallace and the amusing story of how ancient clay-encased dung balls were for many years thought by anthropologists and archaeologists to be remnants of early humankind’s bolas hunting equipment.  It was only when someone accidentally broke one and found a long-dead dung beetle inside that the truth was revealed 🙂

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Often overlooked, the Natural History Museum is an exhibit in itself

 As we were leaving to move on to the Lepidoptera section, I felt obliged to point out to the students that not only is the outside of the museum stunningly beautiful but that the interior is also a work of art in itself, something that a lot of visitors tend to overlook. Once in the Lepidoptera section  Geoff Martin proudly displayed his magnificent collection of Lepidoptera, gaudy and otherwise, including the type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing which was captured with the aid of a shotgun!

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Lepidopterist, Geoff Martin, vying with his subjects in colourful appearance 🙂

Lunch and a chance to enjoy the galleries was next on the agenda.  Unfortunately, as it was half term this was easier said than done, although I did find a sunny spot to eat my packed lunch, as a Yorkshireman I always find the prices charged for refreshments by museums somewhat a painful.  In an almost deserted gallery I came across this rather nice picture.

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

Then it was on to the Spirit Collection.  Erica had laid on a special treat, Oliver Crimmen, fish man extraordinaire.  I may be an entomologist but I can sympathise with this branch of vertebrate zoology.  Fish, like insects are undeservedly ranked below the furries, despite being the most speciose vertebrate group.  I have been in the Spirit Room many times but have never seen inside the giant metal tanks.  Some of these, as Ollie demonstrated with a refreshing disregard for health and safety, are filled with giant fish floating in 70% alcohol.

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Fish man, Oliver Crimmen, literally getting to grips with his subjects.

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A fantastic end to the day culminated with a group photo with a spectacular set of choppers 🙂

Many thanks to Erica McAlister for hosting and organising our visit and to the NHM staff who passionately attempted to convert the students to their respective ‘pets’.

*one day I will write about it.

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EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

Yesterday I accompanied the Harper Adams University MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest Management students on their annual visit to the Headquarters of the Royal Entomological Society (RES), The Mansion House, located on the outskirts of the historic city of St Albans.

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Harper Adams University entomologists, young and not so young 🙂  Photo by Jhman Kundun

Last year we had  a truly epic journey; accidents on the overcrowded UK motorway system on the way there and back, meant that we spent eight hours on the coach 😦  This year, in trying to avoid a similar fate, I cruelly forced the students and staff to be on the coach by 0645.

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Early morning entomologists; despite the hour, happy and smiling  – photo Alex Dye

Unfortunately, despite the early start, a diesel spill closed the M6 at a crucial moment causing huge queues and long detours.  As a result we arrived at our destination a frustratingly  hour and a half late.  Entomologists are however, made of stern stuff and the coffee and delicious biscuits awaiting our arrival soon restored our spirits.

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Coffee!

After coffee the RES Director of Science, Professor Jim Hardie, welcomed the students and talked about the history of the society and the benefits of joining as student members.  This was followed by a brief talk by one of the Outreach Team, Francisca Sconce, herself a former entomology Master’s student, about the many ways in which the RES brings the study and appreciation of insects to a wider audience.  The students were then treated to lunch and given the opportunity to explore the building and its facilities and to look at some of the treasures that the RES safeguards for posterity.

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Someone found the aphid section 🙂

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A future President? – trying out the presidential chair for size

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Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

I am no stranger to The Mansion House; I have taken several cohorts of the entomology MSc students to the Royal Entomological Society since the society moved its headquarters to St Albans in 2007, and also visit the building a couple of times a year when attending committee meetings.  Despite my long association with the RES (40 years) I still however, find things I have never seen before, such as the print below, that gently pokes fun at the single-mindedness of the entomological specialist.

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It is only a vertebrate  🙂

I also never cease to be amazed and humbled by the history that surrounds one as you meander your way around the various library rooms.

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Printed history – as beautiful today as it was 400 years ago

We had a wonderful and educational day and you will be pleased to hear that our return journey was trouble-free.  Finally, many thanks to the Royal Entomological Society and staff for their extremely kind hospitality; the lunch was, as always, filling and delicious  🙂

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Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

Last year I wrote about my experience of being a tutor at the British Ecological Society’s Undergraduate Summer School at the Malham Tarn Field Studies Council site. I really enjoyed myself and also found it very refreshing to have the opportunity to interact with 50 bright young proto-ecologists. It appears that the students also enjoyed themselves as I was invited back this year to repeat my performance. I was very happy to accept the offer, after all, any chance to visit the county of my birth (Yorkshire) is not to be sneezed at and with the added bonus of being able to talk about entomology to a new audience thrown in I would have been made to turn it down. Thus it was that I headed up the dreaded M6 motorway on a sunny Monday afternoon (July 18th) with joy in my heart and a car boot full of entomological equipment and identification keys. The M6 did not disappoint and I spent an hour sweltering in the summer sunshine very slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the inevitable road works. Luckily, being one of those people who likes to arrive early for appointments, I was only fifteen minutes late collecting my trusty assistant, Fran Sconce, from the very picturesque Settle Station and then heading up on to the FSC Malham Tarn site.

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The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

We unloaded the car and just had time to set up 35 pitfall traps before heading in for the evening meal after which the students went on a long walk to Malham Cove.

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The long walk

 I walked part of the way back with them but turned back in time to get to the bar 🙂  for a very welcome drink, before retiring to bed.

The next day was even hotter, and we spent the morning setting up the labs and teaching areas.

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This year, as well as the fifty undergraduates we had ten sixth form students from several different schools in London.  Last year interacting with a class of fifty had posed certain difficulties, so this year we divided the students into two groups and ran the session twice, once on the Tuesday afternoon and then again on the Wednesday morning.  This worked extremely well and meant that Fran and I and the PhD mentors assigned to us, were able to spend much more time with each student and also meant that we were not as rushed off our feet as we would have been otherwise.  So a win/win outcome, although I did have to give the same lecture twice in 24 hours which was an interesting experience.  On the Tuesday afternoon, I started with my lecture on why entomology is important and an overview of the insects.

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I seem to have done a lot of arm waving

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We then went outside and I demonstrated sampling methods while the students baked under, a by now, extremely hot sun, before sending them off to empty and reset the pitfall traps and collect other insects using nets and beating trays.

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Being cruel to trees

 

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Some of the stars of the day

 

Then it was back to the labs to identify the catches before the evening meal and refreshing drink or two in the bar*.   After the bar closed we had the fluorescent beetle extravaganza.  Last year I demonstrated the use of fluorescent dust on one hapless carabid beetle.  This year I used ten, and two different coloured dusts.  The beetles were then released after dark in

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Fluorescing carabids

the courtyard outside the teaching labs where they were photographed fluorescing colourfully under my UV flashlight, as I ‘chased’ them around the arena, much to the delight of the watching students.

As the weather forecast was not very good for the Wednesday morning, we did the insect sampling first, in case the forecast rain was as heavy as predicted.  As it turned out, apart from a short sharp shower, whilst I was demonstrating sampling methods, the sun came out and there were plenty of insects to collect before I did my lecture and we headed in to the labs for another ID session.  All too soon the session was over, and Fran and I, after a hasty lunch, drove back down to Shropshire.

I think that the BES summer school is a superb idea and that the students get a great deal from it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that I get the chance to be involved in any future summer schools.  I was also greatly impressed by the 6th formers who certainly seemed to enjoy my entomology session, one of whom produced this excellent drawing.

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Much better than anything I could draw

For those of you on Twitter #bestug16 will give you a flavour of the whole week.

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Glorious Yorkshire

 

*staffed that evening by the son of my best friend from school!

 

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Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply 🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.

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The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.

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From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time 🙂

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That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.

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Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

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The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular

 

Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.

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How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.

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Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects

 

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I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance 🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much

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more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects

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My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

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Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.

 

References

Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56, 10-13.

 

 

*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it 🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”

 

 

 

 

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EntoSci16 – a conference for future and budding entomologists

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Some of you may be wondering how this World’s first came about. Well, it was all due to Twitter. After a lot of nagging encouragement from one of my PhD students, I finally joined Twitter at the back-end of 2012. Shortly afterwards I met another new Tweeter, @Minibeastmayhem (Sally-Ann Spence in real life) who approached me with an idea that she had tried to get off the ground for a several years – an entomology conference for children. This sounded like a great idea to me and I was extremely surprised to hear that she had been told by various entomologists that it wouldn’t work. After a bit of ‘to and fro’ on Twitter we met up for a very nice Sunday lunch and hammered out a basic plan of action and a mission statement.

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Sally-Ann had done a lot of the preliminary work in approaching potential presenters and over the next couple of months we came up with a few more. I then sounded out my University (Harper Adams) who were very keen on the idea and agreed to do the publicity and the catering. We then began approaching a number of organisations for financial support and/or for stuff to put in the conference goodie bags. Surprisingly, some organisations that claim to support invertebrates and are keen on education, such as the RSPB and London Zoo, judging by their response, obviously didn’t even read our letters or only pay lip-service to the majority of the animal kingdom as they were singularly unhelpful.  Undeterred by these setbacks, we persevered, and with very generous support from the Royal Entomological Society , both financial and in the person of their Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, were able to put together a very exciting package of events and presenters. And very importantly, because of the generosity of our sponsors, all free for the delegates. The big day, April 13th 2016, arrived and we were as ready as we would ever be. Almost 300 students and their accompanying adults (science teachers, careers teachers and some parents) turned up on the day, and to think that at one stage we were worried that no-one would be interested 🙂

The delegates were all issued with colour-coded conference lanyards, and with the enthusiastic help of MSc and BSc students acting as guides, were then 

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started on the action-packed, and hopefully enthralling and stimulating conference circuit.

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George McGavin (our Patron) and Erica McAlister from the Natural History Museum (London) got the conference off to a great start with two very entertaining plenary talks about the wonders of entomology and flies respectively. After that it was on to the zones.

Graham & Janice Smith with the help of Tim Cockerill, were kept very busy with their Bugs and Beetles room, Steffan Gates (the Gastronaut) gave a dazzling and interactive display of entomophagy, Amoret Whitaker from the University of Winchester introduced the students to forensic entomology which included them processing a ‘maggot-infested crime scene’, and current and past MSc Entomology students (Soap Box Scientists), the Field Studies Council, RHS Wisley, and other exhibitors provided a very interactive and informative session in Zone 5. In the main lecture theatre, Max Barclay, Erica McAlister, George McGavin, Andy Salisbury, Darren Mann and Richard Comont were subjected to a barrage of questions ranging from how much they earned, to their favourite insects, their most dangerous insect encounter, some much easier to answer than others.

The day was especially long for some of us, as BBC Breakfast came and did some live filming, which meant that the organisers,  presenters and some hastily drafted in students had to put in an appearance at 0645. I think that they felt it was worth the effort though, if only to be able to say that they had been on TV.   All in all, the day was a real buzz. Of course the real stars were the insects and other invertebrates which managed to generate real enthusiasm among the delegates and their accompanying teachers. It was wonderful to see how many of the students responded so favourably to the insects, many of whom, at first, were reluctant to get close-up and personal with them. Seeing so many young people “oohing and aahing” rather than” yukking and gagging” really made my day. I really, truly believe, that we will be seeing many of the delegates becoming professional entomologists.

I leave you with a few images to give you the flavour of the day. For more professional images this link should keep you happy.

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Early morning preparation, coffee was very much needed

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And we’re off to a great start

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and it just kept getting better

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and better

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Some of the team, Luke Tilley, Sally-Ann Spence, Graham Smith, Tim Cockerill, George McGavin and me.

 

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A really huge thank you to Laura Coulthard and Helen Foster, from the Harper Adams Marketing and Communications Department, who put their hearts and souls into making sure that the event ran smoothly. We couldn’t have done it without them.

And who knows, perhaps we will do it all again next year 🙂

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Being inspired by the BES

This week (20th July) I have had the privilege of being able to interact with 50 undergraduates (mainly just finished their first year) under the auspices of the British Ecological Society’s new undergraduate summer school held at the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Centre. The scheme enables aspiring ecologists to have “an opportunity to enhance their existing knowledge with plenary lectures from senior ecologists, fieldwork, workshops, careers mentoring and more at a week-long residential course” This was especially pleasurable for me because as a school boy and student I spent several enjoyable camping holidays at Malham and it gave me an opportunity to take part in a field course again, something I have missed since leaving Silwood Park where I ran the now defunct annual two-week long Biodiversity & Conservation field course. The programme included two ecological luminaries and old friends of mine, Sue Hartley from the University of York and plant scientist and author, Ken Thompson formerly of Sheffield University and also Clare Trinder from the University of Aberdeen.  Also in the programme was conservation biologist, Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley,  and additional input from the Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management (CIEEM), microbial ecologist, Dr Rob Griffiths from CEH and ecologist Dr Peter Welsh of the National Trust.

I arrived mid-morning of the Tuesday, having driven up from Shropshire to Yorkshire the night before, having taken the opportunity to stay in the old family home in Kirk Hammerton before it is put up for sale. Whilst there I also set a few pitfall traps to collect some insects that we might not catch otherwise. As it happened they were a dismal failure, returning mainly spiders, harvestmen and woodlice, plus one nice carabid beetle, more of which later. The weather didn’t look all that promising for an insect sampling session but I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that it wouldn’t rain as much as it did almost 40 years ago when my best friend from school and I aborted our camping holiday at nearby Malham Cove after three days of solid rain 😉

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Malham Tarn – not quite raining

  I was greatly amused on arriving to be greeted by a very large arachnid lurking on an outhouse.

Malham spider

We breed them big in Yorkshire!

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Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre

After checking my equipment and locating suitable sampling sites I joined the students, Karen Devine, the BES External Affairs manager and some of the PhD mentors for lunch. After lunch it was my slot, a chance to infect (sorry, inspire), fifty ecologically included undergraduates with a love of insects. After being introduced by Karen I launched into my talk to a very full room of students.

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Karen instilling order and attention 😉

Ready to be inspired

Ready and waiting to be inspired

The undergraduates came from thirty different UK universities with a strong female bias, 34:16. Exeter University had four representatives, with Reading, Liverpool John Moores, UCL and Bristol with three each. I was sorry to see that there were no students from my Alma mater Leeds, or from my former institution, Imperial College, once regarded as the Ecological Centre of the UK, although UEA where I did my PhD, had two representatives.  There was also one representative from my current place of work, Harper Adams University. Incidentally one of the students turned out to have gone to the same school that I did in Hong Kong, King George V School, albeit almost fifty years apart; a small world indeed.

I set the scene by highlighting how many insect species there are, especially when compared with vertebrates.

The importance of insects

The importance of insects and plants

Number of animal species

Or to put it another way

After a quick dash through the characteristics of insects and the problems with identifying them, exacerbated by the shortage of entomologists compared with the number of people working on charismatic mega-fauna and primates, I posed the question whether it is a sound policy to base conservation decisions on information gained from such a small proportion of the world’s macro-biota.

Then we were of into the field, although not sunny, at least it was not raining so I was able to demonstrate a variety of sampling techniques; sweep netting with the obligatory head in the bag plus Pooter technique, butterfly netting, tree beating and, as a special treat, motorized suction sampling, in this instance a Vortis.

Sampling

With aid of the PhD mentors and Hazel Leeper from the Linnaen Society, the students were soon cacthing interesting things (not all insects) and using the Pooters like experts.

Students sampling

Getting close up with the insects

I also let some of the students experience the joy of the Vortis, suitably ear-protected of course. All good things come to an end and it was then time to hit the microscopes, wash bottles, mounted pins and insect keys.

In teh lab

Getting stuck in – picture courtesy Amy Leedale

Down the microscope

What’s this?

I was very impressed with how well the students did at getting specimens down to orders and families and have every confidence that there are a number of future entomologists among them. After the evening meal, Kate Harrison and Simon Hoggart from the BES Publications Team introduced the students to the tactics of paper writing and publishing which I think they found something of an eye-opener. The students, after a rapid descent on the bar, enjoyed a Pub Quiz whilst I relaxed with a glass of wine until it was dark enough for me to demonstrate the wonders of using fluorescent dust to track our solitary carabid beetle using my UV torch before heading off to bed.

Fluorescent carabid Eloise Wells

Glow in the dark carabid beetle – the bright lights of Malham Tarn – photo courtesy of Eloise Wells

I was sorry to have to leave the next morning, it would have been great fun to have stayed the full week, but next year I do hope to be able to be there for at least two days and nights so that we can do pitfall trapping and light trapping and of course, have more fun with fluorescent insects.

I hope the students found the whole week inspirational and useful, I was certainly inspired by their obvious enjoyment and interest and will be surprised I if do not come across some of them professionally in the future.

Well done BES and congratulations to Karen and her team for providing such a great opportunity for the students. I am really looking forward to next year and being able to see great Yorkshire features like this in the sunshine 😉

Yorkshire grit

 

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Re-examining external examining and the evolution of humans

External examining 2

Last year I wrote about my first year of being external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree at University College Dublin and some of the reasons why I enjoy the process.  This year I again visited Dublin to undertake my annual review of the zoology degree and was reminded of another reason why I find being an external examiner so rewarding.

Normally I go through all the exam scripts looking at how well they are annotated by the first marker, if they are signposted to help the second marker, e.g. marked as outside reading (OR) and check if they have been moderated and if the mark given has been justified in accordance with the marking criteria.  I also check if the marking across and between modules is consistent and fair.  For many of the modules this is really all I can do as I may not know a great deal about the subject, e.g. epithelial transport.  On the other hand there are some modules that I know a lot about, such as insect-plant interactions or biodiversity, where the questions asked are often very similar to the ones that I set for my own students. In these cases I read each answer and mark them before looking at what the actual mark given was and if they are similar this gives me confidence that all is well.

I often find myself learning new things when I read through the research projects of the students that I am going to viva; this year ranging from molecular biology, to phylogenetics, to elucidating the genes associated with inflammation of the brain of Irish greyhounds, to vertebrate behaviour to marine invertebrates and of course not forgetting entomology.  In respect to the projects this year the experience was no different.  What was different this year was that I had enough time to become engrossed with the scripts of the Evolution of Humans module.  One of the questions asked students to review the evidence that supports or refutes the theory that bipedalism in humans arose from adopting wading behaviour in a humid woodland environment. As a teenager, heretical as it may seem to my fellow entomologists, I was very interested in human evolution, reading and being influenced by Robert Ardrey, especially his book African Genesis and of course by the work of the Leakeys.  On reaching university and afterwards however, I became much more focused on invertebrates and my reading on human evolution became somewhat limited, although I do remember being unconvinced, rightly it seems, by the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and sticking with the African savannah origin hypothesis.

I was thus fascinated to read about The Amphibian Generalist Theory (Niemitz, 2002) in which Carsten Niemitz put forward the idea that our hominid ancestors lived in trees in forested habitats as had been suggested earlier (Clarke & Tobias, 1995) but moved from there to forage along the nearby coasts and river banks from which they waded into the water in pursuit of the rich food sources available. The buoyancy given by the water and the need to keep their heads above water helped develop bipedalism.

Wading monkeys

Modern wading quadruped primates adopting bipedal locomotion whilst wading.  ‘Borrowed’ from Niemitz (2010).

Gorilla wading

Looks more like what happens when you get into water that is colder than you expect than foraging for food!

At the same time as the forests were fragmenting, the savannahs were forming and these were also able to be exploited by these early hominids. I found the student essays fascinating and they stimulated me to download lots of the papers that they referred to in their exam answers.  So as a direct result of external examining I have updated my knowledge of human evolution, and rekindled my interest in the subject.

This is, I think, a salutary message to us all, that by becoming too engrossed in our own subjects we run the risk of losing an all-round appreciation of the world in general.  Talking and listening to people from other disciplines is very important and can lead to very productive and exciting collaborations.  As an example, our entomology group at Harper Adams have  begun to develop some collaborative work with a psychologist, Claudia Uller, from Kingston University which will hopefully generate some very exciting projects.

And my final take-home message; if you are offered the chance to become an external examiner, jump at the opportunity and and not just auditing the process, take the time to read the essays and projects that are not directly in your area of expertise.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

References

Clarke, R.J., and Tobias, P.V. (1995) Sterkfontein member 2 footbones of the oldest South African hominid. Science 269:521–524

Niemitz, C. (2002) A theory on the habitual orthograde human bipedalism—the “Amphibische Generalistentheorie”. Anthropologischer Anzeiger, 60:3–66

Niemitz, C. (2010) The evolution of the upright posture and gaita review and a new synthesis.  Naturwissenschaften, 97:241–263

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How do we save UK plant sciences?

At the beginning of this year (2014) the UK Plant Sciences Federation published an important report about the crisis facing plant sciences in the UK. This was not the first report of this type, for example in 2009 the BBSRC which ironically, is together with HEFCE perhaps one of the main culprits that caused the crisis in the first place, produced a report on vulnerable bioscience research skills, in which among others, they highlighted the vulnerability of plant sciences. The British Society for Plant Pathology produced a similarly gloomy report in 2012. All three reports basically said that UK plant sciences are in danger of extinction unless something is done sooner, rather than later.

Lawn dead 2014

To explain why I, an entomologist, am writing about this, I should explain that plant sciences encompasses plant pathology, plant nematology, plant entomology and pest management as well as agriculture, botany, horticulture, plant breeding etc.

In response to these findings the UKPSF set up four working groups, one of which, the Training and Skills Working Group, I was asked to chair. As if I hadn’t enough work to do already, I agreed.

Our Terms of Reference are:

To develop an implementation plan for the UKPSF and plant science community, outlining clearly defined actions and associated time scales. The plan should contain:

  • One or two short-term actions (achievable within six months to one year).
  • One to three medium to long-term actions (achievable within one to five years).

For each action the working group should specify realistic:

  • Mechanism(s).
  • Responsibility/responsibilities.
  • Timescale(s).
  • Rationale

The working group consists of

Simon Leather Professor of Entomology, Harper Adams University (Chair)

Mary Berry Curriculum Leader for Science, Woodlands Academy

Sarah Blackford Head of Education & Public Affairs, Society for Experimental Biology

Gary Foster Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Bristol; President-Elect, British Society of Plant Pathology

Alistair Griffiths Director of Science, Royal Horticultural Society

Jo Hepworth Postdoctoral Researcher, John Innes Centre

Jon Heuch Owner and Director, Duramen Consulting Ltd (Chartered Foresters and Arboricultural Consultants); Trustee/Director, Arboricultural Association

Emma Kelson Training Officer, Society of Biology (Minute Secretary)

Celia Knight Independent educational consultant (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Charles Lane Consultant Plant Pathologist, Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera)

Jonathan Mitchley Lecturer in Plant Community Ecology, University of Reading; Senior Botanist, RSK Group Ltd

Ginny Page Director, Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Dawn Sanders Docent/Associate Professor, Gothenburg University; Gardens for Learning

Phil Smith Coordinator, Teacher Scientist Network (TSN)

Mimi Tanimoto Executive Officer, UKPSF (Coordinator)

Eleanor Walton PhD Student, University of York

So a fairly wide range of interests and hopefully representative of the plant science community.

I began by asking each member of the group to highlight their greatest concern about plant science training and skills: In no particular order these were our thoughts and concerns

  • we seem to have lost people who can identify things.
  • what do we understand plant science to be, what plant scientists do and what are the skills and opportunities for the future? These need to be understood to communicate professions to young people.
  • the perception that plants are boring. There is a lack of general respect for plant scientists and this needs to be tackled to attract young people into the sector.
  • Even within the academic world, there is a lack of respect for plant scientists, and this stems from a wider society perspective. Plant scientists are underappreciated at all levels.
  • lack of curriculum knowledge at lower level e.g. NVQs.
  • Government does not see plant science as connected with culture. There is big strength in relation to food production but we are failing to explain the wealth of ecosystems services that plants give us. Fusing technology with functionality and health and wellbeing will allow people to understand that plant science is worthwhile and valuable.
  • lack of funding: securing more funding for plant science will entail getting greater public support and more people interested in plants. Increasing awareness of plant science in schools will therefore allow more of a cultural change.
  • lack of trained people within schools to deliver effective plant science education. Making teachers confident and well equipped to teach plant science is a challenge. Few biology teachers in schools have a plant science background. Biology content of the secondary school curriculum is fractured and does not tell a sensible story, so it does not entice or engage students sufficiently. At ‘A’ level, the main focus is on human physiology and not enough on the physiology of plants. Students do not understand the life cycle of plants because they are taught in random chunks.
  • the university sector is just as bad; many biology departments are moving towards animal, human and biomedical sciences because they tend to bring in more funding. Plant pathologists are a dying breed in UK universities and if plant science is not made a core part of biology degrees, it could lead to a major skills gap.
  • a behavioural change is needed to get people involved with plant science and plant health. Funding initiatives, although welcome, tend to be short-lived so how do we sustain a significant long term improvement?
  • it is important to inspire young people to study plant science and demonstrate the types of careers available. We also need to make sure that employers have people with the right kinds of skills but universities often struggle to put on plant sciences courses because of a lack of student interest.

For a similar overview and some possible solutions, see http://cairotango.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/the-trouble-with-plant-science-education/

The main concerns are a lack of understanding of what plant science is, a lack of respect for whole organism plant science and plant scientists in universities, and a huge problem at pre-university level with children and young people not understanding how important plants are and why they are exciting. There is a huge skills shortage in areas such as plant nematology and in basic whole organism biology including the ability to identify organisms, be they plants, fungi, insects and the damage they cause. Students do not understand that there are careers in plant science and related areas such as integrated pest management. In summary the UK has a big educational and resourcing problem in plant sciences.

Why this post?

Think of this as a crowd-sourcing exercise. As a group we want your opinions and most importantly, your suggestions about what the best way forward is. Please engage.

 

If we do nothing

Without a well-trained cadre of plant scientists that are able to recognise whole organisms and are able to interact with industry we will see more problems arising with invasive species, our crop production industry will be severely compromised and biodiversity loss will accelerate. The current crisis in the Forest Health sector for example, is a direct result of lack of investment in plant and allied sciences.

 

What can we do?

Degree accreditation

The Society of Biology and their degree accreditation scheme is one way to restore whole organism plant science teaching to universities. Rachel Lambert-Forsyth of the Society of Biology told us that the key learning outcomes for the three-year programme are general skills such as teamwork, project management, maths and statistics, demonstrating technical skills and familiarity with a practical environment. The final component is specific skills and knowledge appropriate to the degree title. The Society expects to be able to accredit across the breadth of the biosciences but they will need to make sure that they have the relevant expertise to assess this.

We noted that in chemistry and experimental psychology, external bodies specify what should be taught in universities for a course to be accredited. Perhaps to be accredited a biology course should contain a minimum specified number of hours of plant science teaching. Apparently however, the academics involved in the development of the criteria are very against being too specific in case they stifled innovation. The criteria do, however, specify that biology courses should contain the breadth of biosciences so accreditation assessors would look for this. On the plus side, a number of large companies have stated that during their recruitment processes they will actively be looking for students with accredited degrees. This will hopefully encourage universities, including Russell Group ones, to accredit their degrees.

Named plant science degrees at the moment are in decline, Imperial College infamously reduced their plant science provision in 2010 despite having opened new facilities two years earlier. Bristol University used to run a botany degree but this was stopped recently with full support from the plant biologists in the department. The reason given was that instead of studying plants in isolation, plant science should be studied in relation to ecology, animals/insects etc. This may sound a reasonable argument but the problem is that once these subjects are taken out of courses, biochemistry and biomedicine begin to take over and basic whole organism plant science is invariably the loser. This had already happened to the Imperial plant sciences degree before its closure.

We therefore felt that the only way to prevent this happening was to ask the Society of Biology specify that core parts of whole organism plant science must be included in biology degrees, as this would force departments to make plant science appointments and to teach it in a unified way.
Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

The high level priorities from the UKPSF report include inspiring the next generation of plant scientists and ensuring that employers’ skills needs are met through appropriate training and education.

A recent report from the Aspires project at King’s College, London, highlights that children make important decisions about what is not for them at around the age of 10 to 12 (start of KS3 in the UK). http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/ASPIRES-final-report-December-2013.pdf

It is therefore important to get the message across to children that plant sciences are exciting before this. There are a number of initiatives run by national learned and public societies already in existence e.g. the Bug Club for, Nature Detectives, Science and Plants for Schools, RSPB and Plantasia at Kew. See the links below for some examples

http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/

http://jointhepod.org/campaigns/campaign/31 Big Bumblebee Discovery

http://www.pestival.org/

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

http://www.saps.org.uk/

http://www.gatsby.org.uk/en/Plant-Science/Projects/Science-and-Plants-for-Schools.aspx

http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/club/ run by the Woodland Trust

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/ has a Kid Zone

The problem is that whilst it is “relatively” easy, given the right resources and parental and teacher support, to get pre-secondary school interested in the wonders of nature, once they get to secondary school the demands of the school curriculum and expertise available, tend to deter all but the most ‘nature-struck’ children. Those that still retain an interest in whole organism plant biology then find that at university level, options are still very much restricted. This is due to the composition of university teaching staff in biology departments which for the last twenty years or so, has been determined by fashions in research funding and not by the needs of teaching. Courses and modules available have, due to lack of suitable staff, been steadily drifting away from the much-maligned area of natural history and whole organism biology to the much-lauded, and very well-funded, bio-molecular sciences, despite the plethora of articles highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and not all by me 😉

At university level the Gatsby Foundation runs summer schools to encourage undergraduates to consider plant sciences as a career option. This is much-needed, as Ginny Page from SAPS reports that of all the resources SAPS produces, they struggle the most to get teachers using the careers resources. She said this is probably because traditionally, subject specialist teachers are not responsible for delivering careers advice so it is not a standard part of lessons.

There are still a few postgraduate programmes currently available in the UK that are plant science based, such as that run by Reading University in Plant Identification or the MSc in Plant Pathology at Harper Adams University to mention just one of our applied plant science degrees. The problem is, that although jobs await graduates form these courses, particularly those in the pest management area, it is increasingly difficult to get undergraduates to take up the places. Again pointing to the fact that there is a dearth of plant science teaching in current undergraduate courses.

There is of course the Field Studies Council who do a fantastic job, and are, with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Trust also seeking ways to train trainers and to enthuse future generations of field biologists, so it is worth looking at their priority areas and considering linking up with them.

The UKPSF is developing an online outreach toolkit to collate information on the types of activities that plant scientists can get involved with and how they can get involved, as well as some downloadable resources. They are hoping to launch the toolkit later in 2014. There are also a number of passionate advocates for the plant sciences such as Jonathan Mitchley and his Dr M Goes Wild site.

We agreed that there needs to be greater clarity of signposting to schools or anyone thinking about future careers in plant science, about how and where they can study plant science. This could perhaps be achieved by setting up a young plant science ambassador scheme for students and postdocs to go into schools to teach children about plants and talk about careers. It is likely that the Gatsby Summer School would be a good source of ambassadors.

In conclusion, we agreed that there is a need to highlight the educational opportunities and the career paths to the very many varied, and well-paid jobs in the plant science sector.

The problem is that although there are a number of organisations and individuals promoting plant science that they are not yet all centrally coordinated. We see this as a job for the UKPSF. Funding for these initiatives might then become easier and perhaps more available and generous.

 

Inspiring the teachers

We noted that there is a shortage of plant scientists teaching in schools.

At the moment trainee teachers in physic, maths, chemistry and computing are awarded £25,000 but nothing is provided to trainee biology teachers[1] as a lot of biology graduates already go on to do PGCEs (Postgraduate Certificate of Education); however a large proportion of them are molecular biologists, microbiologists, biochemists and some zoologists. Many have little or no field experience and prefer to remain in the laboratory so this reinforces the idea that plants are boring

We need to get more time for plant science into school curricula and make children interested in it because this would help to fill the spaces on plant science degrees. To do this we need to get more plant science students to take up teaching so once again we are back to the supply problem.

As there is so much to fit into a PGCE, it might be worth looking at what training could be provided for Newly Qualified Teachers during their first year of teaching. SAPS already run two day events for those who train teachers, where they have practicals and talks from plant scientists.

A few universities already have schemes such as INSPIRE, which encourage PhD students and postdocs to go into schools but this is for physics, chemistry and engineering students. The STEM Ambassador scheme provides similar opportunities but very few of the students involved are plant scientists.

Getting more plant scientists into schools is, I think, a government responsibility and will involve yet more adjustment of the school science curriculum nationally. Over to you whichever Minister is in charge this week.

 

“Our vision

At the end of our first meeting as a working group, we came up with a vision of where we would like to see plant science in the future, hopefully near rather than distant.

  • Raised awareness and appreciation of the importance of plant science to UK plc and globally.
  • Better industry and government support for plant science, including appropriate legislation.
  • Plant science seen as a well-paid and respected profession, with clarity over the variety of attractive career paths.
  • Universities valuing the impact of plant science and adjusting their recruitment priorities accordingly.
  • Biology degrees at UK universities with a clear thread of plant science throughout.
  • Accreditation and QAA benchmarks that require the inclusion of plant sciences in biology degrees.
  • Education and training covering a wide range of plant sciences that equips students with a variety of skills.
  • Stronger training links between academia and industry ensuring that HE courses are fit for purpose in industry.
  • Greater awareness and interest in plant science at all levels of education.
  • More plant scientists going into professional teaching, and more researchers engaging with schools.

The next hurdle to overcome is to implement the actions that will help us to achieve our vision. Easier said than done, but we did come up with some concrete suggestions.

 

What we decided

Short term

  • Establishment of a young plant scientist group/ambassador scheme.
  • Collation of resources providing information on plant science careers, training opportunities, courses and provisions, and depositing them on suitable websites.
  • Engagement with employers to find out what skills/training provisions they need.
  • Communication to funders/BBSRC that more support is needed for field based work, not just molecular biology.

Medium term

  • Degree accreditation and QAA benchmark engagement.

Long term

  • Getting more plant scientists into universities.

 

All very laudable but will it bear fruit? At present it is all very much dependent, certainly for the short-term and medium term objectives on the UKPSF finding the wherewithal to fund and manage our proposed initiatives. I think the bottom line is that unless universities are forced to teach a well-rounded plant science degree we are unlikely to see much positive change in the future. The onus may be on the government to change the way it funds universities.

 

Please feel free to comment and disseminate.

Lawn 2014 with fungi

 

Post script

Too much talking not enough action?

Note that in 2009, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the then Biosciences Federation held a public consultation to identify strategically important and vulnerable areas of UK bioscience expertise. “Plant and agricultural sciences were highlighted by more respondents (76%) than any other discipline as strategically important capabilities that were already vulnerable or liable to become so. According to the 47 organisations surveyed, the UK still has major skills shortages. We need improved training in-house, as well as through degree, postgraduate and specialised courses”. The following areas were identified as priorities: general plant science, taxonomy and identification, crop science, horticultural science, plant pathology, plant physiology, field studies, plant entomology, nematology, genetics, weed science and pest management.

Interestingly enough when given the chance to fund the only MSc in Entomology in the UK, the Training & Awards Committee failed to take it, and one reviewer (a molecular biologist at a leading Russell Group university) even cited the course area as being outwith the remit of the BBSRC despite  the call specifically mentioning entomology as an area that should be funded at MSc level. The mind boggles at such a narrow-minded view. I suggested at the time that funds should be ring-fenced to ensure funding in these vulnerable areas but was told that this was impossible.

Disturbingly, the BBSRC and MRC are once again conducting a survey to identify vulnerable skills areas and again, due to the composition of the various committees within the BBSRC and MRC (heavily biomedical and molecular biased), I suspect that the only way in which plant sciences and whole organism biology will be saved is by enforcing ring-fencing. We can only hope that someone has the courage and vision to implement it.

 

Post postscript

For those of you who remain unconvinced that plants are exciting I refer you to this remarkable footage from the Private Life of Plants

Private Life of Plants – Bramble Scramble

 

References

Campen, R. (2012) The great outdoors. Biologist, 59, 30-34.

Cheeseman, O.D. & Key, R.S. (2007). The extinction of experience: a threat to insect conservation? In Insect Conservation Biology (ed. by A.J.A. Stewart, T.R. New & O.T. Lewis), pp. 322-348. CABI, Wallingford.

Dayton, P.K. (2003) The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist, 162, 1-13.

Greene, H.W. (2005) Organisms in nature as a central focus for biology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20, 23-27.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2009) Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education, 43, 51-52.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Noss, R.F. (1996) The naturalists are dying off. Conservation Biology, 10, 1-3.

Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machinicki, N.J., Del Rio, C.M., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Dsalomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C., & Wheeler, T.A. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience, 64, 300-310.

 

[1] Source: http://www.education.gov.uk/get-into-teaching/funding/postgraduate-funding

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Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cepaea_nemoralis.jpg

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hain-B%C3%A4nderschnecke#mediaviewer/Datei:Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758).jpg

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.

References

Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉

 

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External Examining – what is it and why do it?

Magnifying glass

I am now in my first year as the external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree programme at University College Dublin (UCD).  Some of you will know what this entails from personal experience, others will not even be aware that the process exists.  For my sins I have been involved in external examining university courses since 1997.  So exactly what does being an external examiner involve and why do I do it?

According to the UCD handbook ….

“Extern (sic) Examiners play a vital role in assisting the University in fulfilling its obligations of assuring the academic standards and integrity of its modules leading to awards.

1.2. Extern Examiners provide an important consultative and advisory function in supporting the development of modules as well as the enhancement of teaching, learning and assessment practices.

1.3. UCD appoints Extern Examiners that are internationally recognised experts in their subject areas and are from institutions with the highest academic reputations.”

Looking across UK universities and reading their descriptions of the duties of external examiners we find a common message that as an external examiner your duties involve the review of  all summative assessment (ie check that the exam papers are fair and understandable) prior to students being assessed and the requirement to submit an annual report, based upon your professional judgement, about  a number of aspects of the programme.  These being answers to the following questions; are the academic standards set for the programme awards appropriate, how rigorous are the assessment processes, are the students assessed fairly and equitably and are the standards and student achievements comparable with those at other similar institutions.  You are also asked to identify examples of good practice and to suggest areas where improvements or changes would be beneficial.

I got involved with external examining purely by accident; back in 1997 I was asked to validate a new degree programme in Life Sciences at what was then The Roehampton Institute of Education, now Roehampton University.   Validating a degree programme involves assessing the course materials, programme specifications, learning outcomes, projected demand, resource availability, goodness of fit to other programmes etc., etc.  Having agreed that there was a case for them to start the new programme I found myself two years later being asked if I would like to be the external examiner!  Obviously, having validated the degree in the first place I felt that it would be churlish to refuse 😉

I have since that first appointment been an external examiner at the University of Leeds (BSc Biological Sciences), York University (Environmental Sciences (Undergraduate and Masters), University College London (BSc Biology), Writtle College (MSc Conservation Management), University of Cumbria (MSc Forest Ecosystem Management and Conservation Biology) and now BSc Zoology at UCD.   I have also validated and re-validated several degrees at other universities but managed to suggest alternative external examiners for those 😉

Appointments are usually made for three years but in many cases extended to four years and very occasionally to five.  So what does it actually involve in practice?  Before your annual, or in some cases biennial visit, you will be sent exam papers to check if the questions are appropriate and to proof-read (you will be amazed at how many spelling and grammatical mistakes can creep into exam papers).  You should also receive module descriptors and the material that students are given before being set assignments and also details of how scripts are graded and marks allocated.  Some places will send you examples of course work and student project dissertations before your visit so that you can make a start on your evaluation ahead of time.  On arrival at the Department, where you will spend the next two to three days,  you should be allocated a space (a secure office/room) where you will be faced with a pile of paperwork to go through.  This can vary greatly, depending on the number of students in a cohort and the number of assessments that count towards the final degree mark.  Those programmes where all years of study contribute to the final grade will have more for you to look at.  Your main duties usually involve examining the paperwork associated with those students graduating in that year, so final year exam scripts, examples of coursework assignments and of course their final year project dissertations/theses.  My UCD pile was about average.

Scripts Dublin 2014 compressed

When I first started as an external examiner,  exit vivas for students were fairly wide-spread and in some cases were used to moderate the degree results of individual students.  This practice has pretty much disappeared and in fact it is now rare to actually get to talk to students on a one-one basis. I totally agree that it was unfair to classify a student’s degree on the basis of a twenty-minute interview, but on the other hand feel that you learn a great deal about the course by talking to students about their projects and experiences.  The staff who deliver a course look at things from a very different viewpoint than those who are on the receiving end.  At some universities students are invited along to an informal gathering with the external examiner(s) (drinks and nibbles provided as an inducement) so that at least some idea of what the students think can be gained; unfortunately take-up can be very low and those who do turn up are certainly not a random sample.   At many universities now, final grades are not changeable and final degree outcomes are determined by an algorithm.  The practice of speaking up at the final exam board in the hopes of moving a student from one grade to another is a thing of the past, and perhaps rightly so as it was very subjective and dependent on the student having a passionate advocate.  Now, if you as an external feel that items within a module were over-marked or under-marked, you are there in an advisory position and not in an executive position, and if any changes to marks are made it will be for the module and not for individual students.

At UCD I was able to talk face to face with half the zoology cohort,  an experience that I found interesting, informative and enjoyable and which did  not have any life-changing effects on the students.  Their final marks were not affected.

At the end of your visit you will be invited along to the Final Examination Board where the marks are presented to the assembled faculty and you will be invited to say a few words about general standards and highlight any concerns that you wish to be addressed before your next visit.  You should also highlight the good things that you noticed and say thank you for the hospitality that you will have received.   Incidentally you will also have to provide a written report to the host university before you receive your fee although you do generally get your travel expenses back fairly promptly.

So why do I agree to be an external examiner?  First,  I find it very useful to be able to compare practices across institutions, I often find examples of good practice which I take note of and apply in my own teaching or tell others in my home department about.  Sometimes I come across great exam questions which I shamelessly borrow to inflict on my own students!  Secondly I think that it is something one should do as a ‘ good academic citizen’  and finally,  you are also usually well treated by the staff of the Department you are visiting and get a least one opportunity to be wined and dined and to meet staff members in an informal setting.

So if you are asked to become an external examiner say yes.  It is not that onerous and it is certainly educational.  If you do decide to become an external examiner I have three pieces of advice for you.

Don’t ask for things to be changed just for the sake of it – for example, the way exam questions are posed in a particular way is generally for a reason.  The people who taught the course know what the students are expecting.  I remember one external examiner asking me to reword an exam question which I did, the result of which was that the students did not answer the question because they did not ‘get’ what it was about.

Don’t be antagonistic – I treat external examining much the same way as I do PhD examining – a two-way process that should have positive outcomes for all involved.  You might not agree with the way things are done in the Department, but find out why it is done that way; if there is no reasonable answer then gently point out why you think it would be better done your way.  If you have valid criticisms to make do so, but do make sure to mention the things you thought were excellent.  Talk to staff and find out if there are things that they feel should be changed by the university or Department.  As the external examiner your report is read by the university administrators and usually published on the University’s website.    You do have the power to make a difference.

Finally, talk to the students.  Even if the Department you are visiting does not have student vivas, ask them to arrange a meeting, either with a group or preferably individual students, so that you can hear things from both sides.

Change will not happen instantaneously, even if you feel it should.   Look, listen and learn and it will be a pleasant three or four years for you and your hosts and at the end of it all you will hopefully feel that you have achieved something worthwhile.

 

 

 

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