10 years of the Undergraduate Summer School

With this year marking 10 years of our flagship Undergraduate Summer School, Amy Padfield, takes a look back at its evolution, from an idea to make a difference to the next generation of ecologists, to returning alumni leading this year’s programme. 

Group photo of the BES Undergraduate Summer School
This year we're celebrating 10 years of our Undergraduate Summer School.

In 2024 a significant milestone is being reached at the BES – the 10th anniversary of the flagship Undergraduate Summer School. 

Over those 10 years there have been changes: a greater focus on supporting individuals with barriers to progression, various locations across the UK, and changes to the ecological programme to bridge skills gaps and keep content current. 

Alongside these the Summer School has remained a significant opportunity for upcoming ecologists to build networks, consider career pathways and absorb the passion and expertise of all involved.  

I could write endlessly on memorable moments since my first involvement back in 2017. Fungi finding, quiz 2021, Skomer voles, bat roosts and caving to name a few. For this 10th anniversary let’s take a look back even further to….. 

2015: the initiation!

Karen Devine, Director of Communities and Inclusion, was behind the the initial years of the summer school. She said The BES turned 100 in 2013, after a year of celebrating we looked at how to make the biggest difference to the next generation of ecologists. The idea that resonated was the Undergraduate Summer School. 

“ Designed to put students in touch with world leading ecologists in a field, over dinner and in the bar allowing for detailed discussions, not just about cutting edge research in ecology, but it’s application and what it means to be an ecologist today from the people who have been there and done that.” 

2016 – 2017: 16 to 18s join in too

Alongside the main undergraduate programme, a group of 16 – 18 year olds, and their teachers, were invited. It was my first year attending a Summer School back in 2017 in Wales. The packed programme ran from before breakfast, until after dinner, and included a trip to Skomer Island with puffins, Manx Shearwater chicks and a Skomer vole! I immersed myself taking in as much information as possible, appreciating the topics less taught in degrees such as entomology and soil science.   

2018 and 2019 – leading organisation and handing over the reins

In 2018 I took the role of lead organiser, whilst a separate 16 – 18 year Summer School was developed. Travelling to Malham Tarn on that first day I wondered if everything was in place – were all the risk assessments complete? Did the entomologists have those crucial collecting pots? Will the experts arrive for our speleobiology trip to Skoska Caves. I shouldn’t have been concerned and all went smoothly. My love for the Summer School, and all it can offer, was cemented.   

A maternity year for me in 2019 meant handing over to safe hands in Chris Jeffs and Christina Ravinet. 

Christina remembers “I had a brilliant time organising 2019, which took place in Millport FSC. We took full advantage of our surroundings, with coastal ecology sessions and a trip on the Centre’s boat to see the marine life, including Kylie, Millport’s resident dolphin! From the mentors to the workshop leaders, everyone was so invested in making the experience unforgettable for the students. It was unforgettable for me too!” 

2020 – 2021 – the online years

With students becoming more isolated due to lockdowns, it was even more essential that we provided an opportunity to network with equally passionate peers. We amended the programme for Zoom, increased the numbers of participating students, and introduced Discord as a hub to connect with other attendees and even play the annual mentor quiz! We even tried Moodle for easy access to information. 

Activities were adapted to allow everyone to participate, whether in urban or rural areas. We worked in partnerships to develop workshops on a wide range of topics including ecology in Minecraft, plant app comparisons, hedgerow surveys, fungi finding, moth traps and bat quizzes to name a few.  

2022 and 2023 – hybrid and a teacher’s programme

The best bits of the online and residential years were combined to allow a hybrid programme. In 2023 we introduced a companion teacher’s programme.

Sammy Mason delivered the programme and recalls “Primary and secondary teachers from across the UK joined us for two days of workshops covering everything from citizen science, to transforming school grounds for wildlife. 

The teachers went away inspired, with new ideas to take back to their classrooms, as well as ecology equipment to help embed ecology into their schools..  

2024 – the 10th anniversary!

This year the programme will be primarily led by returning alumni from the almost 400 students who have attended to date. By far the most rewarding aspect has always been the network of brilliant people we meet each year, many continuing to engage in other events, benefiting from bursaries, and returning as mentors to support their own group of students. Without them the Summer School would not be what it is.  

There are far too many people to name here (!) however a particular shout out to the mentors who dedicate their time each year and support their own group of students. Early career ecologists, PhD students and recent graduates who work closely with BES staff to develop the programme. Alongside this all of the returning organisations who support each year including the Royal Entomological Society, People’s Trust for Endangered Species and individual Wildlife Trusts to name a few!  

So to 2024, and the 10th anniversary of what has become a core part of the ecological calendar. I am handing over the organising baton to Fiona Le Ray (Careers and Inclusion Officer) and Matt Town (Education Officer), and I wish all those involved a huge good luck and enjoy! It really is wonderful!

Interested in getting involved in this year’s summer school? Find our more and apply here:

2024 Undergraduate Summer School