Student Fellow Reflections, Student Voice

Defining Pedagogic Priorities: A Review of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Festival

Last month I was invited to attend the Biological Sciences Curriculum Festival with other three student representatives. The main purpose of this was to connect developments in the School with the Bristol Futures Framework curriculum enhancement process. Co-delivered by BILT representatives and Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, it was also a space to reflect and discuss its values and direction among most academics and educators in the department, where we split into groups to deliver collective feedback.

As a –  as of today, former – biology student, I have witnessed the effort and interests of many academics in the School to tackle global issues as part of the curriculum. Thus, it could be argued that our School has been making a proactive effort to include, directly or indirectly, education for sustainable development in the curriculum.

Free Writing session, passionately summarised by Tansy, highlighting the main points across the ideas shared by attendees of the session. These results seem to depict a clear demand for embedding sustainable development in the curriculum, including terms in global issues (e.g. climate change, environmental, sustainability) and ways to make students action-makers (e.g. influencing skills, climate scientists/modelers political dimensions).

Therefore, I had seen previous engagement and interest from staff in embedding sustainable development in the curriculum, but I was particularly impressed by the level of proactivity of many of the academics present at the festival. Not only among the group composed of students, but many of the staff, if not most, coincided in enriching themes that would nurture future generations’ wellbeing, predominantly climate change, inequality, sustainability, and popularism.

If everyone demands Education in Sustainable Development, what’s next to do?

The seven groups present on the day were asked to prioritise the six pedagogic dimensions of the Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework. Once more, the results were illustrative:

  • 1st Global and civic engagement (15 votes)
  • 2nd Intellectually stimulating (12 votes)
  • 3rd Inspiring and innovative (11 votes)
  • 4th Disciplinary and interdisciplinary (10 votes)
  • 5th Sense of belonging (8 votes)
  • 6th Personal development (4 votes)

As mentioned, sustainability seems to be key to leaders at the School. Global and civic engagement was voted as the top priority dimension, which seeks to challenge students to explore real-world problems and enable them to make a difference. In other words, addressing global challenges through the means of our knowledge, skills, and responsibility as global citizens.

This poses a question on whether making a living from “studying life on Earth” might have meant a professional bias on “prioritising protecting the planet”. It could be argued that biologists have the responsibility to put science on the table and our hands-on solutions, therefore becoming more prone to including ‘Global and civic engagement’ at the top of the agenda.

I believe that we as a top university must ensure that we empower students. Students seem to care as much as staff, if not more, about the future of humanity – and biodiversity in general. So many have aspirations to contribute to solving problems that can compromise life on Earth, and some of us have received formal education through specific optional units like Ecology, Food Production and Agriculture, Oceans, or Conservation Biology.

Consequently, we continued by writing down, between groups, concrete examples of research-rich education and allocating them to the appropriate quadrant of the matrix shown below.

Each group added their own examples (specific assessments, exercises, units, projects of the course, etc.) on different matrixes, which were consequently swapped between groups. Coincidentally, the piece of feedback that I wrote reached directly the attention of the Head of School, Claire Grierson, who conveniently decided to share it with the rest of the participants in the room. I was invited to elaborate on that feedback and did not have much choice but rather to highlight the importance of making research interesting to us, and tailoring it towards our passions. Many students do care about having a positive impact on the world and might be curious about how to address given real-world challenges through biology. This is a rough summary of what I said.

The Literature Review demands students to focus on doing research on a specific question within biology. However, we are randomly allocated to one of our top four choices for supervisors, and most of these will offer a limited range of questions to research. I was fortunate to be allocated with the supervisor I wanted to be with, who let me co-design my own research question. We not only learn better, but we also perform better when we are passionate about our work. This was one of the few times that I actually enjoyed doing academic research.

Therefore, picking my own research question for a 20-credit-point unit was a minor change that made a great difference not only in my performance but also in the development of knowledge of my professional interests. I am passionate about climate change and environmental sustainability, and would often distract myself with extracurricular projects as I found part of my studies unrelated. I was almost deciding that research was not for me, as it felt daunting and forced. However, for once in my degree, I enjoyed (almost) every hour spent reading about the one topic that I loved, preparing the structure of my article, and reading the literature available. Suddenly, I had reached the word limit (3000 words) – just by writing my plan! This was thanks to my supervisor’s flexibility in deciding my topic of research, which, after some discussion and corrections, concluded with “Forest-based Climate Solutions”, a topic that combines biology with my passion for climate change mitigation and adaption.

As part of my literature review, I included a high level of interdisciplinarity, understanding and recognizing the interlinkage between the environment, people, and the economy – what is wrong with combining different disciplines when (1) is a growingly necessary task in the workforce, (2) I love it, and (3) increases my academic performance? Note that the Literature Review represents 12.5% of the marks for a BSc in Biology.

What’s more – and what I did not mention in the festival -, my Literature Review turned out to perfectly align with the research performed at UNDP Nature, where, coincidentally, I got offered a dream apprenticeship as a Research Assistant.

The results of our group were mostly composed of the only students in the room. We demanded more ownership over our topic of research and our learning (unit as an entry point to develop our own learning).

It remains uncertain whether the Literature Review actually influences my manager’s decision of offering me a job. Nonetheless, it represents an interesting case study of the benefits of making students co-creators of our own research, tailoring it towards our own interests and passions. Other examples of colleagues who took ownership over their topic of research include The study of the effects of warfare on biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems, Moving toward a sustainable future through a reduction in meat consumption, A literature review of the origins and predictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a comparison with previously similar pandemics, and Veganuary or Regenuary: Which wins for sustainability? A literature review.

All in all, the School of Biological Sciences had a rewarding and productive festival in which the importance of building sustainable futures was repeatedly highlighted. Hopefully, in the near future, students will receive an education with a higher degree of sustainability topics integrated, where they learn and act as co-creators of their own curriculum. Finally, the element that our School may slightly lack is interdisciplinarity and working together with other faculties and academics from different fields, but more to come soon (very soon).

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