Innovations in Marine Education

This blog is by Jen Cooper, who was a BES Undergraduate Fellow in 2012. She recently completed a BSc Honours in Marine Biology at the University of Liverpool and will be starting a PhD at Sheffield in May. Jen attended a marine education workshop as a representative of the BES last month and reflects on her experiences here.

On the weekend 15-17th March, Dale Fort Field Studies Council Centre held its first “Innovations in Marine Education” workshop. The event was organised by Mark Ward at Dale Fort and was part-funded by the British Ecological Society. Aimed at teachers and educators, the event consisted of several sessions over the three days.

In attendance were several representatives from a range of organisations, including the Field Studies Council (FSC), Cheshire and Sussex Wildlife Trusts (WTs) and the National Trust (NT). In addition, there were several independents who, through art or science, were involved in marine education. The lack of mainstream educational teachers was apparent, and their non-attendance provided much debate throughout the weekend. High delegate involvement allowed the group to learn from and about each other, keeping the event interesting, dynamic and highly conductive to innovation.

It was quite surprising how little the organisations knew of each other’s work, but this did mean everyone was able to learn something new over the weekend. Delegates not aware of the school education system were able to learn about ecology fieldwork and curriculum requirements from an FSC talk. Pitfalls of the current school system for teaching ecology, including the astounding differences in ecology requirements between exam boards, were also highlighted. The implications this could have for the future generations of ecological researchers, policy makers and all others intrinsic to its functioning as a sector were clear. With some of the teaching needed to fulfil requirements seeming quite uninspired, it’s not hard to see why ecology in general isn’t seen as ‘sexy’ and why biology isn’t a ‘cool’ science. As David Attenborough’s image becomes less familiar with young people, where is ecology’s Brian Cox?

Workshops throughout the weekend proved that ecology can provide an ideal forum for fun and exploration in teaching. Unconstrained by the curriculum, organisations like the WTs and independent educators have greater scope to teach in a fun, interactive way. One really interesting concept, and one that seemed to be popular amongst all of the delegates, was the Cheshire WT’s new project, Undersea Explorers. This project, originating from the Yorkshire WT, allows children to experience the ocean in their local swimming pool. It’s a simple yet productive idea. Children are taught to snorkel and are free to explore in the safety of a swimming pool, which is filled with marine habitats and creatures (not real of course). With games that teach about food webs and human impacts this is a truly inspirational way to teach and enthuse children about the marine environment. This undoubtedly makes marine ecology fun and also accessible to those in deprived or landlocked areas. There’s also an interesting by-product; more confident swimmers!

Although the weekend was a success overall, one obvious issue was the distinct lack of teachers at the event. To ensure the future of environmental scientists, policymakers, governors and many more, it is essential that ecology, biology and environmental teachers can provide a good education. Teachers inspire children and light up future career paths, and involvement in workshops like this might be one way of achieving that. Was low attendance due to timing, with Easter round the corner and exams looming, or was it driven more by the individual, their affiliated institutes or a problem that stretches higher? Regardless of the answer it seems essential that these questions be answered.

In general, marine educators seem ready and willing to push their efforts to gain the best results. Not in the game for the money, rewards are mainly in the form of the response they get from those they educate. This event offered the space and time for people to re-connect with their passions and to formulate new and innovative ideas for how to achieve more with their work. Through events such as these it might be possible to create a coherent network of organisations, working synergistically to introduce both children and adults to the natural environment.