Case Study - From Fieldwork Sites to the Vegas Lights

Matthew Baddock, Richard Hodgkins, Tom Matthews, Jon Millett, Jeff Evans, Sarah Wappat, Paul Wood; Geography and Environment, School of Social Sciences and Humanities.


 Pandemic restrictions throughout the 2020–21 Academic Year created challenges for Part B Physical Geography, which emphasises active learning through practical classes and fieldwork. The united response from academic and technical staff went beyond limiting impacts on quality and opportunity: the skills curriculum was enriched, through initiatives in widening accessibility to scientific methods, data types and sources, research questions and scales of enquiry.

1 Background 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all aspects of education, but particularly for practical skills development. Geography’s regular Part B residential fieldcourse (N Wales) could not be delivered, and other fieldwork was significantly restricted for much of the academic year. As subject skills are very much a theme of Part B physical geography, the challenge was not only to maintain a meaningful and engaging skills curriculum as part of the educational experience, but also to ensure students could still be well-prepared for their important Part C dissertations.

2 Methodology 

Due to its relatively late timing, it was anticipated that GYB308 Forest Ecology fieldwork would go ahead, so this was used by academic and technical staff to develop a COVID-safe fieldwork protocol. This fieldwork takes place in the Burleigh Wood Nature Reserve adjacent to campus, an outstanding local resource for ecology and conservation studies (A1, see 8). Although plans for a substitute residential field course were made, the uncertain situation through the year eventually necessitated an alternative plan that avoided travel. Moreover, prudence required that skills training be enhanced in other parts of the curriculum, to ensure that students would have sufficient experience and resources on which to draw whatever form the field course ultimately took. In GYB201 Remote Sensing and GIS, the analysis of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets was levered to provide diverse data sources and processing techniques that would not only deliver research-level skills, but also stimulate dissertation ideas. Practical exercises included the analysis of satellite-derived land surface temperature, temporal change in vegetation evaluated using Google’s powerful Earth Engine, (A2) and tracking the variability in the nocturnal illumination of the Earth’s surface as a story of human activity, from post-disaster dimming to development brightening, with Las Vegas the ne plus ultra of sampling locations (A3). This approach was followed in GYB327 Geographical Research: Design and Practice, the pre-Easter timing of which precluded in-person data collection. In the first of three activities, students were trained in the batch-processing of large-scale, satellite-derived, land-cover data using ArcGIS Model Builder, an advanced skill for Level 5 which strongly supports employability. For the second activity, data from the Campus Weather Station was combined with data from the Met Office citizen science “Weather Observation Website.” This enabled students to place the campus in a regional context of varying urban coverage, to answer the question of whether Loughborough generates its own “heat island” (A4). Open data availability makes this activity highly transferrable to other times and places, and it links statistical techniques learned in Part A to the dissertation. The third activity is a field excursion to the Black Brook near Loughborough, which went ahead because of its timing late in the academic year, following the COVID-safe protocols previously established. Between this and the forest ecology field excursion, students were still able to practise ecological sampling and carbon auditing, and sediment sampling and river flow measurement. However, prior to this we had reached Easter with travel restrictions still in place, so it was necessary to implement the residential fieldcourse alternative. The GYB911 Physical Geography Fieldcourse therefore took place on and around the campus. Over the course of benefitting from access to the teaching spaces of the STEM lab. A member of technical staff devised and led an entirely new soil science project, linking soil properties to land-use across the campus (A5). Another entirely new activity looked at field microclimates and the effects of hedges on airflow. The portfolio of activities Part B Physical Geography students have practised is more diverse than ever, and the skills they have developed to access different kinds of data, and different methods of analysis have been significantly enhanced following pandemic-related modifications. 

3 Issues 

The main problem throughout was uncertainty around lockdown rules in relation to the timetable, while reassuring students that their educational experience would not be compromised. University- supported systems helped us overcome this problem: the rapid and robust enhancements to the university’s IT infrastructure, including remote access to specialist GIS software; the flexible extra training provided by CAP at short notice; the dedicated support of Geography’s technical staff; all of these gave academic staff the best opportunity to focus on adapting learning activities. 

4 Benefits 

In the face of disruption and uncertainty, it would have been easy to retrench and accept less active learning as unavoidable. However, enabled by initiatives across campus (see 3), the Part B Physical Geography team was instead able not only to maintain but also to enrich the skills curriculum. This includes the delivery of subject-specific skills that facilitate success in independent work at Level 6, but also key skills that are likely to be critical to future employability, e.g., the remote group work on GYB201 provides hard evidence not simply of sitting through remote lectures, but of task-focused teamwork and collaborative achievement. 

5 Evidence of Success 

The May 2021 Geography SSLC noted for GYB911 that “Students really enjoyed the trip and do not feel they lost anything from changing the location.” More than three-quarters of Part B Physical Geography dissertation proposals submitted this year have been formulated to use geospatial data. Examples include quantifying vegetation recovery after Australian bushfires and Himalayan ice dam lake formation. This represents the largest ever proportion of dissertation ideas based on geospatial data, and, promoted by student confidence in remote access systems and the skills learned and awareness developed in GYB201 and GYB327

6 How Can Other Academics Reproduce This? 

An agile curriculum is key to weathering disruptions to regular learning and teaching. Resilience was facilitated by three “multiples”: activity, data and location. Combined remote and in-situ activities offered flexibility, allowing learning to continue as restrictions tightened and eased. Acquiring data from multiple sources, either COVID-safe, in-situ measurements, or online from providers as diverse as NASA or citizen science communities, meant original analyses could always be learned and practised. Finally, considerable use was made of both the physical and the digital campus: Burleigh Wood, green space and farmland, the weather station, the STEM lab and the IT labs’ keyserver

7 Reflections 

Part B Physical Geography is richer for the adaptations made, having prompted more active learning across the whole curriculum, not just in fieldwork modules. The search for alternative activities, data sources and study sites has diversified the training of which students can take advantage for further, independent work. The newly-local GYB911 widened access to potentially expensive fieldwork, thereby expanding opportunity. 

8 References 

Appended: sample “Instructables” and student work from the modules discussed in this case study, labelled A1 to A5, referred to in the text above.

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