And we’re back!
Apologies to the loyal fan base for such a lull, connection to the interwebs has been spotty for a while now. Why, you ask? Well, let me tell you a little about Wildlands Studies’ Peru Project, for which I’ve been the TA for the past 6 weeks.
The course, which ASA Director Geoff has led for the past five years, provides exposure to a spectrum of different habitats found in Peru.
[map of where we travelled, soon to come]
Our course takes us from the Highlands of the Andes, featuring cloud forest and puna (Andrean grassland) all the way down to the floodplain of the lowland Amazon rainforest—plus a whole lot in between.
As the Teaching Assistant, my responsibilities are just that. For the most part, my main purpose was to risk manage the group, and to take charge of getting the crazy kids to the hospital in case of an emergency. Luckily, it never came to that…but with our group, you just never know!
Although it wasn’t expressly written into the TA position, I wanted to take charge on some of the educational activities too. So I asked Geoff if I could lead some of the paper discussions, and maybe give a lecture or two. He was open to the idea, depending on what I had. Oh, I had some good stuff, don’t worry.
The students were learning a decent amount about identifying plants while on our hikes, and I wanted to make sure that stuck. So I pulled a page out of the Bio FSP playbook (see those posts!) and put together a plant practical: I split the students into teams and had them ID plants in the field to the family level. The winning team got some candy (but the way you get everyone to like you? Give everyone a li’l candy too. Participation prizes for the win). The group was into it, and a couple students asked afterwards if we could do another!
As part of the Wildlands Course, the students also design and execute short research projects in groups. Again, thanks to my experiences on the Bio FSP, I could draw from what I learned in my previous tropical studies. I put together a workshop overviewing field project design, covering material such as how to tie together observations, how to form stimulating research questions, and the distinctions between experimental/observational studies and a hypothesis/prediction. Definitely helped develop some of the skills they’d need for their projects.
We had some great paper discussions on conservation topics as well. I led one that involved two papers concerning forest fragmentation. The effects of clear-cut deforestation are not just limited to the land that underwent logging; nearby forest is subject to edge effects as land turns to pasture or cropland, such as increased wind disturbance, introduction of invasives, and an increased presence of poaching. To top off this discussion, I provided each of the students with grid paper displaying a plot of forested land. After describing the various features of the land (biodiversity hotspots, locations of waterways, etc.), I told them to shade in the squares they would choose to turn into national reserve—out of the 96 squares, they could choose only 25. After individual deliberation and group discussion, I revealed the land that the Peruvian government had chosen, as the map closely resembled the land surrounding Manu National Park. So now they were all fully qualified to delineate national parks, right?
At the end of the course, I led another discussion focused less on the biology of conservation and more on the philosophy related to the field. After reading papers containing arguments on both sides of the “Old vs. New Conservation” debate, I lectured on the distinctions between the viewpoints—both in methods and motives—and the ethical framework through which we perceive land and resource management. I wanted to accentuate that this conversation is not simply two sides of a coin, but rather a spectrum between viewpoints…and a multi-dimensional spectrum, at that.
[another picture that refused to upload…but here’s the caption I wrote for it!]
I asked students to place a sticky note along a coordinate axis of various approaches to and motives behind conservation. Later in the discussion, I had them revisit where they placed their sticky— had their views changed at all?
The purpose of this exercise was not to have the students make up their minds on the right approach—I didn’t want them to entrench themselves behind a certain argument—but to provide them with the terminology and tools needed to approach this topic equipped. After a stimulating conversation with most of the group participating, their was large consensus that no single approach to conservation is supreme; rather, for particular causes and issues, different methods are best suited.
Overall, a lot of interesting conversation with this group. I think they learned a lot about tropical ecology and conservation, and I learned a good chunk about teaching too!