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From field work by boat to excel sheets: how the corona virus is impacting education

Professor of Ecotoxicology Martina Vijver had planned an eight-week field work course for her students, but the corona virus threw a spanner in the works and Vijver had to come up with a new plan at short notice. ‘Without the help of my own network and that of my colleagues this would have been very difficult.’

Professor of Ecotoxicology Martina Vijver

‘We had to completely shift gears. For starters we had to get used to a new way of teaching. Making short online instruction videos is a totally different ballgame than lecturing to a class, where you can go into more depth and take questions from the students.  Not only that, but we also had to adapt about 60 percent of the course content. The whole course was designed around the field work which had now been cancelled, so we had to come up with a whole new idea.

‘Our original plan had been to research a so-called ‘wicked problem’, a problem for which there is no easy or clear-cut solution. Our chosen case study was the Kralingse Plas lake in Rotterdam. It was dredged a few years ago, which led to a huge bloom of poisonous blue-green algae. The local council used hydrogen peroxide as a countermeasure, which then led to many of the fish dying. The solution for the death fish also had a lot of drawbacks, and so on and so forth. Every solution to a wicked problem causes new complications. It is a very interesting intersection of ecology and policy.

‘The students were going to head out in boats to study the water. Using a trunk full of measuring equipment they could measure the chemistry of the lake. By collecting samples of the aquatic animals and plants we would also be able to build a picture of the lake’s ecological conditions. But every is shut now, and keeping 47 students at 1,5 meters apart is just not feasible, so we’ve had to cancel the entire Kralingse Plas plan.

‘Together with my colleagues Maarten Schrama and Emily Strange I decided to switch to a different topic. The students are now going to study agricultural substances. The debat about these crop protection substances and pesticides is very polarised (hence the different names) and there is a lot of research available on the topic. This will make it easier for the students to get to grip with the material while learning from home. This topic also offers us a lot of wicked problems leading to difficult solutions, such as when to use which substance and whether potential damage to nature is justifiable. To simulate the field work we have created a hypothetical data set for the students to work with.

Phoning experts

‘Another important part of the field work would have been talking to different stakeholders, such as researchers and people from the industry. In Rotterdam the students would have gone to interview these people face-to-face, but now it has to be done remotely. Luckily I know a lot of people who do research into pesticides or work in the industry and who were willing to act as experts. Nobody wants to have an unfortunate quote of theirs recorded, so all of this requires a great deal of trust, which is only possible if you have known these experts for a long time.’

‘Without a network it would have been very difficult to set up a whole new course this quickly. I think that a new researcher would have a much harder time creating a whole new programme at such short notice.’

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