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Experiencing the landscape: essential training for environmental scientists

All the study in the world can’t prepare students for the reality of experiencing a landscape like Lake Pinaroo in the Sturt National Park. Ric Raftis

Science disciplines - physics, biology, geology and so on - are often treated as discrete from one another. But when it comes to environmental science, students - and the scientists that they become - have to be able to synthesise material from a range of different disciplines to try and make sense of the ecology of ecosystems and, ultimately, conservation priorities.

Most students studying degrees in the environmental sciences will undertake field trips at some stage in their degree. Usually these field trips involve staying at a field station and heading out each day to nearby places to observe and learn field techniques.

Landscapes, however, are varied; different biotic regions and ecological gradients are the result of different climatic and geological influences. It can be difficult to see some of the big-picture influences on an environment without taking a step back, and travelling through the landscape in a way that allows the changes to become evident. It is not always obvious how different regions are utilised and perceived by various people.

I teach three units that each aim to expose students to landscape from a broad and contextualised perspective. Like all good field trips, they employ experiential learning. Unlike most, however, they are in many ways like a road trip, allowing us to traverse different Australian landscapes.

The southern field trip follows an altitude gradient from the lowest point of the land, on the coast near Eden, to the highest point in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko. This trip looks at the influence of altitude on river systems, vegetation and fauna. The northern field trip follows a chain of extinct volcanoes up the Great Diving Range, looking at the changes in rainfall from the east to the west of the Great Divide. Crossing from one side of the Divide to the other allows students to see how the landscapes and the biota inhabiting them change according to different rainfall patterns and topography. The western field trip takes students to the South Australian border. On the way they cross semi-arid woodlands, before heading north parallel to the border as far as the Sturt National Park.

Flora like the Mountain Gentian on Mount Kosciuszko is restricted to a specific habitat based on altitude. Peter Kent

All of these trips allow students to observe, as they travel, the way in which topology influences vegetation and fauna. Students gain a more interdisciplinary understanding of landscape and environment. As the geology changes, the catchment changes, and so too the associated vegetation complexes change. In turn this will support different bird life, marsupials, reptiles and so on.

Recognising the interconnected nature of landforms, water catchments, soil structure, vegetation and animal life is, and always has been, a key part of the study of ecology. However, until one can experience ecology in action, so to speak, it is little more than a word - an academic concept. It’s necessary to travel through the landscape and experience it changing around you in order to get a sense and understanding of different environments.

This kind of awareness has implications for understanding conservation priorities but also for understanding effective land use practices, such as which areas are suitable for agricultural production or forestry, and where this production might rely heavily on resource-intensive practises such as irrigation.

Students also gain a solid understanding of environmental processes. For example, they find it easier to understand orographic rainfall because they experience it as they cross the Great Divide, and observe its effects on the landscape. Students usually find that they retain concepts more easily through experiencing them first-hand, rather than memorising something they are told, only to forget it after the exam is over.

A key element of this experiential learning is the inclusion of speakers on all of the trips. These speakers are researchers and professionals who work in the area on a variety of projects. On the western trip, students hear from indigenous speakers of the Barkindji people.

The indigenous speakers offer a very different perspective of the land from what the students are used to. In classes back in Sydney, they learn about ecology and the agricultural use of land. On the field trip, the students are “living” in the landscape themselves, albeit for a brief period, and develop their own perspectives based on their experiences and their studies.

Being in the landscape lets you experience concepts first-hand. Andrea Leigh

The indigenous perspective - which includes thinking about how indigenous people used and continue to use the land - makes students aware of another angle from which to think about the land around them.

For example, in Mutawintji National Park, the students might learn about what the plants are called, how they survive harsh temperatures and what vegetation complex they belong to.

But an indigenous speaker might instead tell the students to look out for the dust on the westerly aspect of the trees - settled there because of the prevailing winds. The knowledge of how to follow the dust patterns on the trees would help young children find their way home if they strayed too far.

These kind of stories have a big impact on some students and shape the way they understand and appreciate the landscape around them. It is also a reminder that it would be foolish of environmental scientists to neglect the perspective of people who have had continuous association with the land for as long as the Barkindji tribe.

Many students have grown up in the city with limited exposure to landscapes and natural environments (in spite of their evident interest in environmental science), so there is a hidden curriculum to this kind of experiential learning as well.

Learning how to live with thirty other students, taking turns cooking for one another, sleeping in tents, coping with setbacks that arise due to the weather - all of these things are not formal parts of the curriculum, but are nonetheless essential for students who hope, on graduating, to head out into the field as an environmental scientist.

Experiencing landscape in a manner that recognises the varying influences of topography, soils, water and climate, and with the opportunity to see this landscape from new perspectives, is good training for environmental science students. Taking the big-picture view of ecosystems and landscapes is essential if we are to accurately evaluate landscape health and conservation priorities in the future.

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