Shall I wear my thinking cap or my sunhat?

Shona imageBy Shona Irvine

It’s that time of year again. Exams are looming. Head down, noses in books and fingers racing across keyboards. Luckily, being a geoscience student, I can escape the giant building of essay-writing and diagram- learning (aka Central Library) to the more peaceful realms of King’s Buildings. In this sunny weather it’s great to get out for a break and wander to Blackford Hill or Hermitage of Braids. Wow, I could never study in a busy city! The views accross to Craigmillar castle and Braids golf course remind us that there is a world out there. Amd much of what we study is helping us understand it, helping us protect it.  Earth day has just passed. But that doesn’t mean we can go back to the old ways; there’s still so much to learn and so much we can do to help. Turning off lights, re-using paper, recycling tins…they’re all obvious these days…but as they say: every little helps!
Yesterday’s subject of revision for me was soils. It’s amazing how the ground below our feet supports us.
Today I had trip out to visit family. Beautiful views from the train.
Anyway enough of this procrastination: I better get my head down.

Shona is a 2nd year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student. 

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Analysing the Environment in Morocco

IMG_0690The MSc in Environmental Protection & Management has been quite the ride from modules were we explored the importance of carbon sinks such as peat bogs to practical courses that challenged us to work as a group on the implementation of food hubs in North Edinburgh. One of the compulsory modules we took as part of this course is “Analysing the Environment”.  It was divided into a class that covered qualitative and quantitative methods in semester one, and a practical study trip at the end of the second semester. This week we got back from the study trip which took place in Imlil, a small, mainly-tourist town (nature-related tourism), two hours away from Marrakech, Morocco. Our programme and the Soils & Sustainability programme, both co-tught with SRUC (Scottish Rural Agricultural College), spent 7 days studying social and physical sciences there.

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The trip was a great way of combining what we had learned in class with the physical environment, applying new analysis tools, and immersing ourselves into a new culture in the beautiful valley surrounded by the Atlas Mountains. Mount Toubkal is the second highest peak in Africa at over 4,160 meters above sea level. The snow covered peaks and the lush vegetation along the sides of streams juxtaposed with the dry desertlike landscape that stood out in the valley’s terrain.  At this time of year, snow is melting and the rivers and streams are in full flow with mostly pristine water quality as indicated by the pH, copper, hardness, and nitrate content strips we used to test the samples. We worked in groups of 5 to 10 people, each day on a different topics including: social sciences, forests, soils, air quality, land use, rivers (biodiversity, morphology, and modelling), and AgRE Cal (tool used to estimate or measure the carbon footprint and other greenhouse gases from different agricultural land uses).  Even though we rotated activities each day, we stayed in one group to analyse the data collected and present our final findings. On the last day of the study tour, our group presented our findings on the soils and land use of Imlil. The main form of agriculture in this geographically sensitive area is through substance farming in terraces along the hill slopes. We extracted soil samples from walnut, cherry, apple, and grazing areas and found some similarities in soil type, structure, pH, infiltration and conductivity in most of these areas-except for the very dry grazing areas. Erosion is also a major issue, due to wind, water, and weather pressures, yet vegetated areas serve to minimise the impact.

IMG_5238.JPGThis trip exposed us to new experiences and united the MSc group more than ever. Apart from the work days, we also had a free day to visit the vibrant palaces and markets of Marrakech, held a debate and a pub quiz night, and had the most delightful mint tea and views from the Kasbah du Toubkal (highly recommended if you happen to go to Imlil!).  Overall this experience made us apply the knowledge we acquired throughout the year to try and answer a complex question (i.e. the impact of current land use practices on  the soil in Imlil), challenged us to work together under a tight schedule (and very limited access to internet), whilst providing us with an enriching and eye-opening journey abroad.

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My University Courses Part 3: Politics in a changing World: An Introduction for non-specialists

Overall:

In first year I took this politics course as my outside subject. It taught me why I shouldn’t take any outside subjects. Don’t get me wrong the course itself was educational. It informed me of important world issues. However it had no relevance to my degree whatsoever. I realized that when I take a third course I should chose the ones that cover the same or similar topics as my mandatory courses. Geology is geology, I shouldn’t get too creative. So lesson learnt there.
The course was broken down into 4 parts:
• The lectures with reading
• 1 hour discussions
• Evening seminars
• Essay writing
International politics discussed a range of issues from BRIC nations to women’s rights around the globe. The course introduced new challenges the future world might face. The course did put an effort into introducing base science when it came to economics and climate change but the information I got out of Earth Dynamics was way more useful. The subject tackled ethical questions when it came to global economic and military order. It mapped out different political ideas and how they shaped the modern world.

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The lectures:

The lectures were 2 hours long where we got a different expert every week. In the first part we discussed the readings from the recommended books and papers. In the second part the expert gave us a taste of his field, be it in international law, global finance or parliamentary politics. In some cases we watched a documentary that the expert made such as one about war in Central Africa. The style of each lecture changed due to us having a different lecturer each week. In some cases the lectures were presented in a traditional manner, while in others it was a room wide conversation.

The Discussions:

Every two weeks we had a 12 group discussion with a tutor for an hour. The discussions reflected the lectures and the essays. In some cases the discussions were interesting where many different points of views were shared.

Evening Seminars:

It was the best part of the course. In the evening experts and authors were invited to talk to us about their books and work. The events were very similar to the talks given by RSGS. The expert spent an hour presenting the topic than we had a Q & A session. After the event wine and cheese was provided allowing us to informally discuss topics.

My Essay:

As part of the course I had to write an essay about my chosen topic. My topic was the House of Lords and unelected chambers around the world. I argued that a group of unelected experts advising the government is a good idea. They provide knowledge and information that wouldn’t depend on the opinion of the voter. They would be free to speak their mind and tell hard truths without fear of losing their seats to a populist.
Writing the essay and researching for it helped to develop many skills. I had to focus on single streams of thought and develop coherent arguments that were backed up with evidence. I had to learn how to structure a university essay to be full of good arguments but stay below the expected word limit.

Overall the course was informational but it was not for science students. They went deep for the philosophical questions but seemed to care little for the empirical science. They were more interested in asking: “Is it ethical?” instead of “Is it logical?”.

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Civics Education in Secondary Schools

A couple of months ago I entered into a competition to write about politics. I wrote an article about the importance of civics education and how it could be brought back in Scotland. I am aware that this blog is about geology and the life of a geostudent but it would be a waste of an article for it not to be published. I hope this post can spark a debate about civics education in Scotland.

The Original Article:

Civics Education in Secondary Schools

The government does a lot of good work trying to increase democratic participation. MPs and House of Lords members give regular lectures and speeches to the public and universities. The BBC produces regular programming and has a dedicated channel, BBC Parliament to cover Parliament and debate political issues. The British government pours mountains of money, effort and people to make us vote and care.

Yet… outside of the main issues democratic participation is all time low and falling (and when it comes to the big issues like the EU Referendum, people vote on emotion without thinking about the long reaching consequences). People don’t know the democracy they are living in. Few people know their MPs and almost none know their MEPs.

This sounds very paradoxical as despite the funds and effort, people are not very much interested in voting and know very little about British Democracy. So what could be the cause of this?

In my opinion there is no problem with the method of the British Government. The problem lies with where and when is the political education applied. The government should concentrate on secondary schools and start political education there. A civics class should be mandatory part of the standard curriculum. This would normalize the concept of democracy early on. It would introduce young minds to it, making the concept of voting as natural, the rule of law a second nature.

When I went to secondary school I got no education in politics. In Social Education we touched on many issues like racism, war, drugs, social problems etc., but we completely skirted the subject of politics and government. All the knowledge I have, I gathered from books, newspapers, TV shows and YouTube videos. The only reason I got interested in politics was due to my English teachers and the English department. My English teachers encouraged me to read newspapers like the Times and the Telegraph. The English department started a newspaper for the school and a debate club. I took part in both of them at lunchtimes and in the afternoons. These activities introduced me to concepts like Parliamentary Democracy, the First Past the Post System, Political Parties and Proportional Representation. They allowed me to think about my ideas and organize them by writing articles. These clubs provided me with a fairly good political education. The problem is this was not mandated by the school or by the government. These clubs were created by teachers who used up their own time to facilitate the newspaper and drive the debate club to evening competitions. I was lucky that I had the teachers who cared. Because of them I became politically aware with knowledge and respect towards democracy. Being knowledgeable about you own democracy shouldn’t happen by chance, it should be part of the basic education of every child. A mandatory civics class should be necessary in every public secondary school.

This section of the article will be more of the discussion phase of my idea where I am outlining what I think should be in the curriculum. (I am not an educator just a concerned citizen, who sees his fellow men being woefully undereducated about our government, democracy and political parties. So please do not expect some great insight, these are just my ideas on how to get young people to understand democracy and government. I do hope that my ideas get into the hands of more knowledgeable people who can develop it into a full subject that is presentable to secondary school children.)

The outlines of my ideas for the curriculum or at least the main parts:

  • Poster Creation:
    • UK Political Parties. The classroom would be split into 6 teams. The task: each of them would create a poster about a pre-assigned political party and present it to the classroom.
    • The Two Chambers of Westminster. The class would be split into two teams. Each would prepare a presentation about the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
    • Democracy around the World. The class would be split into 6 teams, they would create posters about 6 democratic countries: USA, UK, Australia, France, South Africa and Germany)
    • The Governments of Different Countries. 6 teams. 6 posters about how the government functions in 6 radically different countries: USA, Argentina, UK, Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea)
    • The History of Democracy. 6 groups, each of them would create a poster about the history of democracy around the world.
  • Colouring:

Colouring sheets of important democratic elements, political figures and political parties. This could be very useful for S1 and S2 classes.

  • Movie Hour:

Films could be played about important figures and their lives. Political documentaries or biographies of important people and important political institutions.

  • A standard day:

First 10 minutes would be lecturing than 30 minutes discussion about the subject. Last 10 minutes each student would write down a quick opinion of the subject.

  • School wide events:

These would be special events when all civic classes come into one school wide event:

  • The Trading Game. The students would be broken down into teams representing different countries around the world. Each team would be given paper and scissors. The paper would represent raw materials while scissors would represent economic development or manufacturing capability. For instance Nigeria would have lots of paper but no or a single scissor, while the UK would have lots of scissors but very little paper. The countries would be making shapes (representing tradable products) and would trade with each other. After an 1 hour or so the country with the most cut shapes wins.
  • Model United Nations. It would be something similar that takes place at university model United Nations.
  • Mock British Election. The teachers would turn into the voters, while students would split into political parties. They would have a day to come up with a manifesto, a slogan, a campaign plan and a speech. They would present it to the teachers. The teachers would vote for the party that did the best job.
  • Mock US Election. See above but with Republicans and Democrats.
  • Mock German Election. See above but within the German system.
  • Lunch Time Initiative:
    • Debate Club. Same thing as a standard debate club.

In a nutshell these are my ideas to instil the British value of democracy into our society. The education of our young would be the key. The SNP showed with their 2015 General Election victory that you can connect to young people and bring them into political life. After all our democracy cannot function if the people don’t participate in it or make bad choices due to lack of knowledge. These problems can only be traced back to a lack of healthy civics education. I hope that this idea I laid out above will spark a conversation about the importance of education about our political system.

 

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Community BEES

The School of Geosciences Community BEES group have had a super busy year of organising fantastic events for student and staff. Check out their blog to see what they have been up to as they reflect on the year!

Community BEES blog

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Semester 2 Check-In

Hi all!

It’s currently mid-way through Semester 2 and our MSc in GIS class has just handed in our formal Dissertation Plans. Only a few weeks of classes left and then we move into full-time dissertation project work! I can’t believe how fast this has come up!!

2017 has started off excellently – I wasn’t able to go home to Australia over the mid-semester holidays, so I stayed in Edinburgh for the winter. I got to celebrate Christmas in Scotland, had the Hogmanay fireworks right next to my dorm and went for a quick holiday trip to Norway and Sweden! The beginning of Semester 2 has been the busiest part of the year yet (if you’re an incoming student – be prepared for February to go FAST), but even though it’s meant a few late nights in the Drummond St computer labs (my second home), I’ve still had enough free time to go on some day trips to Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Fife, North Berwick and the Scottish Borders, go to weekly seminars (there’s always a great bunch on every week, in GeoSciences and beyond!), watch 6 Nations rugby matches down at the pub and catch a few really good movies! Even if sometimes it feels like there’s not enough time to do everything, it’s definitely still possible to fit in fun things around study.

I was prepared for a cold and rainy winter, but the weather in Edinburgh has stayed incredibly nice – still a lot of blue and sunny days! As an Australian, I was very excited to get two (!) days of snow…. I only wish there could have been a bit more of it 😀 But spring is fully on its way – there are flowers popping up all over town and easter eggs in the supermarkets. I’m looking forward to diving in to some project work!

 

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Our unappreciated world – See and Inspire Art Exhibition

As part of the Festival of Creative Learning (FCL) I once again organised art to be exhibited in the Crew Building (King’s Buildings). This year I tried to really test people on being creative and came up with a slightly obscure theme- the unappreciated world.

In our busy day-to-day lives we often don’t take the time to appreciate the world around us. For this year’s art exhibition I wanted staff and students to think about this theme and send me photos, paintings and even sculptures for the event.

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Prize giving

We had almost 40 submissions to the exhibition (see images above) and it was wonderful to see a great balance between the number of submissions from staff, PhD and undergraduate students. On the Thursday of FCL we had a drinks reception where people came and enjoyed the art over a glass of wine. Our guests this year were The Arty Scientists who came and talked to us about some of the cool stuff they were doing as part of FCL. One of the highlights of the afternoon was giving out prizes for favourite pieces. First place when to “The Circles of Leaf” by Andy Griffiths who is a PhD student within The School of GeoSciences. Andy has kindly provided some information about his research which inspired his submission.

Andy Griffiths

“Largely the result of serendipity, both photos were taken while conducting fieldwork along an elevation gradient in the Montane Cloud Forests of the Peruvian Andes. My research focuses on the plant group Miconieae, and aims to understand potential evolutionary and functional constraints on the elevational distribution of plant species. A number of environmental trends are associated with changes in elevation, for example, the reduction in temperature of approximately 0.5°C for every 100m of elevation gain. Such trends allow elevational gradients to be used as natural laboratories of environmental change, in which we can study how different environments influence species distributions.

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Andy’s picture 1

During one of many nights spent camping out in the forest, I chanced upon the interesting effect of backlighting my leaf collections with a head torch. In the resultant photo, the light illuminates numerous tiny trichomes, a morphological adaptation, believed to reduce herbivory by impeding the movement of insects and other organisms across the leaf surface. Herbivory is thought to decrease with elevation; as such we might expect fewer adaptations such as trichomes in plant species found at higher elevations.

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Andy’s picture 2

In order to measure a number leaf traits, such as the ratio of leaf area to dry weight, I used a ½ inch diameter craft hole punch to cut leaf discs of a known area – easier to dry and process in the wet and humid environment of the Montane Cloud Forest than complete leaves. Looking at a pile of discarded discs I was struck by the contrasts of form and colour – many shades of green – and took a photo. Perhaps this photo has a future on the impossible jigsaw puzzle shelf, between to the baked beans and buttons!”

The drinks reception was finished off by some live music provided by GeoScience staff and students, which was great fun for everyone!

The art is still up so please feel free to pop by and see what the unappreciated world looks like to our staff and students. Maybe you will be inspired to look a little closer at the natural world around you too!

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Words of Wisdom from Magical Mountains

By Shona Irvine

As an Ecological and Environmental Sciences student last year we were required to study over the summer; part of our course involved a field project to do during the holidays….but it was worth it for two reasons; A) it was fun and interesting and B) it means that this semester I only have to do two courses instead of three. And I have been taking full advantage of my extra free time.

The last few weeks there’s been lots going on and I have managed to go on two fantastic weekends away. Being parts of societies at the university of Edinburgh is great fun! Early February wasn’t as snowy as hoped for; so when I went to the Cairngorms with the mountaineering club we had fantastic walking conditions; and some folk had great fun climbing. On the Sunday I was very lucky to get on a winter skills course to top up my navigational and ice axe skills.

Then this past weekend I went to another of Scotland’s iconic areas; Glencoe. It was another great trip. On the sunday me and a friend had a great walk and as we went we identified the flora!

Sadly the weather wasn’t all as fantastic as it could have been but it was snowy on the tops and very atmospheric!

 

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‘Wolf Totem’ screening

One criterion that strongly attracted me to the University of Edinburgh’s Environment, Culture and Society MSc programme is its commitment to interdisciplinary studies.   Studying the environment crosses multiple academic disciplines, including the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities.  This is the very spirit of the Framing Interdisciplinarity film festival, which highlights the connections between the environment and the arts, including a screening last week of Wolf Totem in the Institute of Geosciences, followed by a short panel discussion led by programme director Prof. Emily Brady.

Wolf Totem is a Chinese language film (with subtitles) directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud and is generally based on the book of the same name.  It is a story of human intervention in the environment set in Outer Mongolia during China’s Cultural Revolution.  In short, it demonstrates the tensions caused in the environment when human beings interfere with nature, including driving species to (near-)extinction.

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This film is difficult to watch for several reasons, not the least of which are the frequent scenes of human cruelty toward animals.  Whilst the cinematography of this film is fantastic, the story and the script both drew criticisms from the academic panel.  First, the film diverts from the orignal book in that it softens the book’s even harsher depictions of cruelty toward animals, and the film’s ending shows the main characters making peace with the wolves at the end; the book’s ending maintained the harsh, bloody tone.  Also, the panel took issue with the way that it depicted Mongolians’ views of the wolf versus the way the culture actually does and historically has.  The film showed the wolf as a revered creature in their  cultural identity, with the post-screening panel suggesting that the Mongolians actually viewed the wolf as a predator which needed to be eliminated at all costs as a threat to their sheep.

These criticisms notwithstanding, this film still provides powerful examples of the dominance that Homo sapiens has over the natural environment and how our behaviour makes a very strong impact with long-lasting effects.  Despite its flaws, Wolf Totem sends a strong message that others ought to heed.

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See and Inspire Art/ Science Exhibition

This year will be the third time that I run an art exhibition where GeoScience students and staff celebrate the natural world. I really enjoy this time of year as the art exhibition creates a great buzz in the Crew Building (where the exhibition takes place and where I spend the majority of my time). In my role as a University Teacher I am lucky to interact with many students but I find this event gives me the opportunity to talk to staff and students about what they are planning to submit (many of whom I haven’t seen before).

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Last year’s student prize winners photograph titled A new perspective (Harold Wolstenhome)

My overall aim for the exhibition across years is to help us communicate our interest in science and nature better. This year I am asking a bit more of people and I want them to focus more on the unappreciated world. This could be things that you encounter on your way to work or field site which you never take time to enjoy it’s splendour. For staff and students doing research there maybe things in your data collection that is actually really beautiful but is overlooked.

This year the event is called See and Inspire and that’s exactly what I hope to achieve from the event. Not only for people to be inspired by the beauty of the painting/ photograph or sculpture which is being displayed but also in the natural environment or research on which it was based.

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Art being displayed in the Crew Building (King’s Buildings)

 

If you are interested in participating in this event you better get your art in quick as spaces are filling up fast! If you would like to submit a painting/ sculpture or photograph please contact me asap to reserve a space for your art (Christina.Coakley@ed.ac.uk).

Deadline for photograph submissions will be Wednesday the 15th of February.

All art work will be displayed from Monday the 20th of February and a formal drinks reception with special guest, prizes and potentially live music will take place on Thursday the 23rd 2-4pm in the Crew Foyer.

This year’s event is in collaboration with The Arty Scientists and The Community BEES. The Community BEES are a group set up to help create a sense of community within the Ecology and Environmental Science Programme, click here to read their blog. The Arty Scientists are a group of scientists who also want to communicate science through art. They are hosting two workshops in FCL, make sure you check these out (click here to visit their events page).

For more information regarding the art exhibition please check out our events page or contact me at Christina.Coakley@ed.ac.uk.

We look forward to seeing you art!!

Christina Coakley (University Teacher)

To learn about our past events please use the links below.

2016 Art Exhibition Blog

2015 Art Exhibition Blog

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