A field trip in your own backyard

3 Sep 2020
BIOL3016 students
Outback Ecology Field Studies (BIOL3016) students ventured into their own backyards and neighbourhoods, refining key ecological skills.

In the midst of a global pandemic, UQ researchers have been rising to the occasion, transforming their subjects into online and socially-distanced learning experiences.

Even studies out of the classroom have felt the strain of COVID-19 precautions. Many field subjects – often requiring travel and large group activities – have been put on hold across Australian universities.

Dr John Dwyer and his fellow teaching staff at UQ’s School of Biological Sciences have tried to buck this trend – creating a ‘travel’ experience in the backyards and neighbourhoods of their students.

“We’ve been working hard to continue to offer students valuable in-the-field learning experiences, quickly adapting Outback Ecology Field Studies (BIOL3016),” Dr Dwyer said.

“This subject – in normal times – is a six-day camping trip to Idalia National Park in Western Queensland, where students study ecology in an arid environment, but this year this simply hasn’t been possible.

“Though, as luck would have it, the students live across a strong gradient of urbanisation, from the built-up inner city to the leafy outer suburbs.

“Using camera traps and bat call recorders – that professional ecologists use routinely – we had students examine how birds, bats and possums vary in diversity and abundance across this gradient, in their very own neighbourhoods.”

Students ended up conducting bird surveys in their backyards, tree surveys along their local footpaths, and possum surveys around their neighbourhoods.

Dr Dwyer also led plant identification training via WhatsApp video for his students scattered across the suburbs of Brisbane.

“They learned how to identify a lot of new plants and animals and gained a deeper appreciation of the ecological milieu in which they live,” he said.

“But the loveliest surprise was their excitement about ‘incidental’ wildlife interactions, such as close encounters with tawny frogmouths while they were spotlighting for possums at night.

“They also commented on the feeling of mindfulness that comes from just sitting quietly and looking and listening for birds.

Student results
The results of the students' neighbourhood monitoring.

“Engaging with nature in urban environments is well known to have mental health benefits and I think the students experienced this firsthand.”

The team – which also included Dr John Hall, Lyn Beard, Selena Hobbs, Gabrielle Lebbink, Coen Hird, Cameron Baker and Al Healy – was surprised how well the activities worked, how much fun the students had, and the breadth of ecological skills and experiences delivered.

“One student emailed us saying that the practical skills taught in this course, including online mapping, bioregions, R coding, quantifying forest structure and carbon markets, were invaluable,” Dr Dwyer said.

“They’ve already used them to plant suitable natives in their garden at a new rental, and are looking forward to using them in restoring land in the future.

“Given the current challenges, that’s some of the best feedback we could have hoped for.”

After the success of the course the teaching team are keeping an urban ecology option open for 2021.

“If we’re faced with travel restrictions again in 2021, we’ll develop this course further and let students know from the outset that BIOL3016 will be an official urban ecology course.

“Post-pandemic we’re not sure, but will definitely use what we’ve learned in our other courses.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging and stressful transition, but extremely surprising and rewarding.”