Studying BSc Environmental Geography in the “new normal”

Our students and staff share their experiences of returning to University, explaining how they’ve adapted to the new online learning and teaching.

Environmental Geography is all about global change – how humans and the Earth adapt to external stressors as part of a complex ever-changing dynamic system. This year we’ve seamlessly moved teaching content, resources and delivery online whilst retaining a blend of safe face-to-face, socially distanced interaction when possible. This has allowed the Environmental Geography degree to grow and develop whilst incorporating a range of new tools and innovations.

Dr Tom Bradwell, BSc Environmental Geography Course Director, explains the new initiatives undertaken for online delivery of the course:  “We have included a vast amount of bespoke online content within our exciting web-based virtual-learning environment. We have created new multimedia ‘virtual fieldtrips, for example exploring rapidly retreating glaciers in Iceland; and provideengaging live teaching via video-conferencing, discussion boards and chatrooms. As Course Director I am proud of how quickly and how well students have adapted to the new ways of learning this year – with great feedback across the board”!

Many would say that studying online, from home and not interacting in person with lecturers and other students takes away the community feeling you get on the University campus. However, The University of Stirling took all the possible measures to tackle this through various activities and online channels. Lisa McLean, 4th year student, found this effort very rewarding: “Staff always offer additional help through video calls and email, making us feel less isolated. They also still encourage group work in seminars which was an important aspect for me as I am so used to meeting friends on campus every day or being away on field trips throughout the semester”.

Another student returning to her 4th year of studies, Kaja Horn, also found the online interaction with her tutors and fellow students easy: “Despite the lack of face to face teaching, the online seminars enable us to keep in touch with our academic staff in whatever way is possible under the new restrictions. Lecturers usually stick around for 5-10 minutes more after class has finished so that we get the opportunity to ask questions. They are also quick at replying to our emails. Personally, I receive very quick replies to most email queries sent out to teaching staff, and am receiving a high level of (online) support from my dissertation supervisor, via regular MS Teams meetings”.  

BSc Environmental Geography 4th Year Kaja Horn

So how are students finding online learning?

While current restrictions meant that teaching of the autumn semester had to be delivered online, it didn’t mean that students missed the fun of learning new things and expand their knowledge on the subject of their study. Kaja Horn, begun her studies online this semester and she quickly adapted to the new normal and found positive aspects of this new way of learning: “The current restrictions make it a lot easier to simply focus on university work as there are less distractions and temptations out there. Instead of being on campus 5 days a week for classes, training and library study times, I am now mostly working from home, participating in online seminars and writing essays while sitting on the couch. This flexibility allows me, for example, to focus on one module at a time and complete the coursework required that week for one class before moving onto the next”.

Teaching staff at the University of Stirling didn’t want the students to miss this opportunity and prepared innovative, online teaching material ahead of the start of the new academic year so that students get the best experience possible. Lisa McLean found studying online a little challenging at first but is full of praise of the work and effort her lecturers put together so that they deliver the best possible online experience: “Staff has made great effort to ensure teaching remains both enjoyable and interactive. Staff always offer additional help through video calls and email, making us feel less isolated in these scary times. They also still encourage group work in seminars which was an important aspect for me as I am so used to meeting friends on campus every day or being away on field trips throughout the semester”. 

How does it feel doing your dissertation from home?

The dissertation project is a great deal of work and students devote a lot of their time on campus with their supervisor, in the library and various other locations their project takes them, especially if the dissertation is part of a placement or conducted in collaboration with a company. So how are students coping with this big piece of work from home? Lisa McLean, started working on her dissertation from her home this semester and explains that while COVID-19 restrictions make it difficult for her to experience her project the way she originally thought, she says that online teaching has been going well so far and she is thoroughly enjoying working on her dissertation: “I am working on a live project – identifying earthquake proof properties at UNESCO world heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. My dissertation advisor has gone above and beyond to make this dissertation still possible without students being able to access some labs. I am still feeling like I am working on something so important that will help people’s livelihoods in Nepal; despite not being able to do much from my desk at home. Stirling University and their staff are trying so hard to engage with students during their dissertation and I thank them for being so dedicated and helping during this difficult time.”

What about those starting University for the first time during the pandemic?

Joining a University is an exciting time for young adults and it is the well-earned reward after having a hard time of exams and studying. The anticipation of meeting new people, experiencing the campus community and being exposed to the subject of their studies is something that everyone is looking forward to experience. Despite COVID-19, fun times weren’t missed when starting studying at the University of Stirling. Oscar Jessop, 1st year student in BSc Environmental Geography, found himself not only studying a practical course but also meeting new people online. Of this new experience he said: “Online learning facilities are very high standard and are extremely easy to follow, if you manage your work well then it is very simple to navigate on to the next task”. On his interaction with other students Oscar said: “Study groups and discussion areas have been set-up on the canvas homepage which allows students to chat in smaller groups to discuss problems risen for the week’s work or just to talk about life at Stirling”. The support provided by teaching and admin staff has been of high standards to ensure that 1st year students don’t miss on their study experience.

Dr Eileen Tisdall, a Lecturer in Biological and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Stirling, said about the effort teaching staff has made to provide high quality online learning: “With the new restrictions imposed by the Scottish Government, it meant that we all had to adapt our teaching to the new normal and adhere to the new social distancing rules. As a teaching team we first of all made sure that all the materials and resources that students would need to complete their learning were online.  We spent time redesigning our practicals and then filming both in the field and in the lab (some of us were not used to the limelight!)”.

BSc Environmental Geography is a practical course and student get to experience a lot of lab and field work during their studies. The Department went to great length to provide as much practical sessions as possible so that 1st year students don’t miss on the invaluable field work experience. Filed work and lab sessions were offered so that students put into practice the theory the learned online.

Campus rock specimens

Of this Dr Eileen Tisdall added: “We arranged a few session this first semester that accommodated 16 students each time in a lab where they had the opportunity to examine the rock specimens and fossils used in the online teaching sessions. We also arranged for field work to take place on our beautiful campus and the Bridge of Allan Quarry so that students experienced first-hand some geological techniques.  We found that students used the materials available online in combination with the field visits (a guided tour almost) and many visited the sites again or in their own time. The use of online resources to support both field and lab work was very positive and successful from a learning and teaching perspective and it something we will look to use again”.

Bridge of Allan Quarry

Oscar has thoroughly enjoyed his course so far and particularly appreciates the effort teaching staff at Stirling have gone to support their students and provide a good learning experience while adhering to social distancing rules and teaching online. He said: “I feel that the way Stirling University has dealt with the current climate the world has been struggling with has been very positive, the support which is available is exemplary and the passion in which the teachers deliver lectures is fantastic. I would thoroughly recommend Stirling to new students thinking about undergraduate studies”.

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