a summer of learning – biology, teaching and life

“I certainly won’t become a teacher!” was always my first reply when friends and family asked what I wanted to do once I graduated. Now, about a year after I got my degree, I’ve taught several first-year biology courses at the university, and I really enjoy it. Not only because I’ve realized how very important it is to teach people about science and to do it well – also because there is a certain satisfaction in seeing how people who are interested in a subject not only learn a few facts, but also have sudden realizations as they grasp the larger picture. My own participation in these courses is still recent enough for me to remember how that feels (well, I still have those epiphanies every now and then and plan to continue having them!).

Teaching, I’ve noticed, is also the best way to truly learn something – especially if you teach alongside more experienced people. At the moment, I consider myself in training for learning how to teach well. I probably will feel that way forever.

I strongly believe that only people who have the interest and the knowledge should teach on university level. An unfortunate thing I noticed during my years as a student was that it is obligatory for some researchers to teach, and many of these would much rather have done other things instead. This drastically lowers the quality of the teaching: you may have an impressive amount of knowledge, but if you can’t communicate it, students won’t learn anything and science won’t move forward. But that’s just an aside.

This summer I (among other things) worked as an assistant on two field courses at Helsinki university. During the first one, called ‘Biotopes’, we aquainted ourselves with different kinds of habitats and the organisms that reside there. It’s a wonderful way of becoming familiar with the plants, insects and interactions in our surroundings – the point is almost, as the main teacher said, to absorb this information by being in it. No better way of learning the most common species than by being in their natural setting and being in direct contact with them. We had a great group size with only 6 students – a rare luxury which we might not be able to experience again.

During the second course our aim was to teach the students how to do practical ecology – how experiments are planned, executed and reported. I’ll make a blog post about that later.

I won’t say much more, only this: I’m sharing these photos as they suit the theme of this blog – as a matter of fact, this course was an eye-opener that helped me start seeing the (normally) unseen things in life. It’s a privilege to now be able to (hopefully) help the next generation of biologists have as strong an experience. I’ll add a gallery with additional photos at the end of this post, for people who are interested enough – otherwise this would be a very long post.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse into a biology student’s life! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to use the comment section, or contact me.

The first day, we went to a Myrtillus- (bilberry) and spruce-dominated forest, and also checked out some of the plants that live in areas of exposed bedrock. The picture is from the second day, when we visited a beautiful bog. The net is used to catch insects.

The carnivorous Drosera anglica, or the Great Sundew, grows on bogs.

A teacher and two attentive students.

During these field courses, there’s a lot of sitting in the grass, crawling around and almost standing on your head – as you will continue to see further down as well. This day we went to a hayfield which had earlier been used to grow timothy, and to the wetter part of the field (which has quite a different composition of species).

The first half of the course was based at the biology campus of Helsinki University, the second half at the Tvärminne zoological station. The first day at the station we spent on another kind of bog, in a pine- and Vaccinium- (lingonberry) dominated forest, and on a sand dune. As one would expect, it’s often quite wet to walk around on bogs. The white flowers in the picture are Common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium).

The students could make either traditional or digital plant or insect collections, the traditional version including making a herbarium. Some also took pictures for their own pleasure.

Taking notes in the pine forest.

One of the students must’ve thought the diversity in the pine forest was too low, so she made her own plant – the pine flower (or tallblomster in Swedish). It was quite beautiful!

It was early June and the water wasn’t very warm – fortunately, the sand was.

We saw Arctosa cinerea running around on the sand.

As I said, a lot of sitting in the grass… For one reason or another. 😉 The second day at the zoological station we spent by the seaside, looking at what grows closest to the brackish water and what grows in it.

Snail admirers.

A solitary bee (as in solitary in lifestyle; not lonely. Maybe.).

Talk about teaching in the field!

We looked for, and found, an antlion! As larvae, these critters dig a pit, place themselves at the bottom of it and wait until ants fall into it (throwing sand at them to make sure they don’t escape). The adults are winged and resemble damselflies to some extent.

The next day, we went to an oligotrophic (nutrient-poor) lake and a brook.

We found this dragonfly that had just gone through its last moult and gone from nymph to adult. It was still drying its wings when we found it; you can see the skin it came out of in front of it.

During this course, we usually also visit at least one island. The flora and fauna are quite different in these habitats. This was taken in a natural seminar room.

The collections of water on these very rocky islands have a life, and ecosystem, of their own.

The station’s beautiful research vessel, Saduria.

The day after the course party was a bit slower than the other days, and we spent most of it by the water, catching all kinds of critters with specialized nets. This is a pipefish, a close relative to seahorses. Just like their relatives, female pipefish deposit their eggs in the male’s specialized egg pouch, where he carries them until they hatch.

The following (rainy) day we visited a grove which is flooded on a regular basis (which, again, means that only certain kinds of plants and animals can live there). This is a Banded demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens.

We managed to squeeze in another visit to an island. Due to quite strong winds we couldn’t reach the island in the outter archipelago that we had planned to visit, but the substitute island wasn’t bad at all either! Here the main teacher is trying to catch something in the reeds.

The students enjoyed the island in other ways as well…

In the evening (well, starting at midnight) we grabbed our flashlights and and went to see if anyone had been tempted by the baits we had put out a few hours earlier. We saw individuals of a few different species, this being one of them.

We also managed to avoid stepping on saw this meeting between a slug and a harvestman.

Somewhere between sunset and sunrise after the night excursion. This is the beautiful view from the zoological station.

The last day of the course we visited some dry forest types, dominated by heather and lichens. On the way back to the car we saw this Grass eggar larva (Lasiocampa trifolii).

Check out some more pictures in the gallery below (the image will become larger if you click on it)!

7 thoughts on “a summer of learning – biology, teaching and life

  1. I think I recognize the island in the 25th picture, the shape of the bay looks very familiar. That’s Långskär, isn’t it? Our stickleback hotspot : )

    • You are correct! 😉 We were planning on going to Segelskär, and we got to like 5 m from the shore. Due to the waves, though, the shipmaster decided that it wasn’t safe enough to get off there, so we went to Långskär instead. I have only been there a few times before, but it’s quite a nice island!

  2. Pingback: my favourites from the year gone by! « alternative viewpoints

  3. Pingback: Found while foraging (November 3, 2012) | Inspiring Science

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