Welcome to the blog of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Northampton. This will keep you up to date with both student and staff activities.

The Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences includes staff with interests in biological sciences, conservation, ecology, environmental sciences, environmental statistics, geography and waste management. We offer a range of degree programmes and have a number of postgraduate research students. For more information about studying with us please visit http://www.northampton.ac.uk/.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Classes on poverty inspire students to donate to local good causes

Second year Human Geography students have been learning about issues relating to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion in the UK. Alongside lectures on geographies of homelessness, food poverty, and mobility deprivation, students have had the chance to meet a range of guest speakers from local front-line organisations, charities and services. Guest speakers have included:
Lots of craft materials, puzzles, games and warm clothing  for Age UK day centres in Northamptonshire
Students have also been active in collecting donations for these organisations. In a fantastic effort this term, students have so far collected:

  • 70 items of toiletries and 20 cartons of UHT milk (all items urgently needed by local food banks)
  • 12 scarves, and several bags full of puzzles and craft materials for day centres for isolated elderly people;
  • several car boots full of food and clothing donations for local food banks.
Lots of items donated for the foodbank!
Providing some of the most-needed items for Spencer Bridge Foodbank

I have a feeling there will be another car boot full of items next week!...

Prof John Horton

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity

This term we have started refreshing and reformatting our first year undergraduate modules, partly in preparation for the move to our new Waterside Campus, but also because they were beginning to feel a bit tired and jaded.  We have begun with ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction, a 20 CATS module which mainly services our BSc Environmental Science and BSc Biology programmes.
One of the changes has been to go from a “long-thin” delivery of 2 class hours per week over two terms, to a “short-fat” delivery of 4 hours per week in one term.  The advantages of this, we think, are two-fold: (1) it provides students with a richer, more immersive experience because they are not mind-flitting between different topics; (2) it frees up longer blocks of time for academic staff to focus on programme development, research activities, etc.

For now we have opted to deliver the 4 hours in a single session.  That’s quite a long time for the students (and staff) to be taught (teaching) but it’s punctuated by short breaks and includes a lot of practical work in the field, lab, and computer suite.

One of the aims of ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction is to engage the students with the use of taxonomic names of species and higher groups, familiarise them with the principles of biological classification, why this is important (and why it underpins the rest of biology and much of the environmental sciences), and so forth.  Building confidence in how scientific names are used, and the diversity of species that all of us encounter on a day-to-day basis, are important aspects of this, and I developed a couple of new exercises that we are trialling this term which are focused on these areas.
The first one is called “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy” and was partly inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Heard when he posted about The Plant Gastrodiversity Game.  It works like this. I begin with an interactive lecture that sets out the basic ideas behind taxonomic classification and its importance.  After a short break the students then begin the hands-on part of the exercise.  Working in groups of three they use a work sheet that lists 10 culinary dishes, including:  fried cod, chips, and mushy peas; spotted dick; spaghetti bolognese; Thai green curry with tofu & okra; chocolate brownies, etc. (this can easily be varied and adapted according to needs).

The students’ first task is to find a recipe online for each dish.  For each biological ingredient in that dish, they list its common name and find its taxonomic family, genus, and species (italicising the latter two, as per taxonomic conventions).  I emphasise that it is important to be accurate with names as they will be doing something similar in a later assessed exercise.

This takes a couple of hours and then they feedback their results in a debriefing session, including finding out who had the longest list of species in a meal – the winner was 17 species in a moussaka recipe, with a Jamie Oliver fish and chips recipe coming a credible second with 12!  We also discuss particularly common taxa that turn up frequently, for example plant families such as Solanaceae – the relatedness of tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes, and aubergine, the students found very intriguing.
By the end of this exercise the students will have gained familiarity with researching, understanding, handling, and writing scientific names of species and higher taxonomic groups.  In addition they will have a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of organisms that we consume, and their relatedness.  It may also have encouraged them to try out some new recipes!

If anyone wishes to comment or add suggestions for improvements, please do.  If you’d like to try this yourself with your own students feel free to adapt it to your own needs, though an acknowledgement somewhere would be polite.

Prof Jeff Ollerton

This article was first published on Jeff's blog here

Friday, 25 November 2016

Department staff assess biodiversity impact of new Waterside Campus

The University of Northampton is building a new campus, in the heart of Northampton. The Waterside Campus will open in September 2018.

Researchers within the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been monitoring the effects of the building work on biodiversity. You can read more about this research here.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Game helps Geography students understand the impacts of climate change

We welcomed Frank Sudlow from the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD) to our 'Geography and Development' session last week and he led a simulation exercise on the effects of climate change on poor families from around the Global South.
Students worked in 'family' groups to produce materials for market
Students were divided into six teams of five, each representing a family producing a commodity whose livelihood is being affected by climate change. The families included the Chenge growing coffee in Tanzania affected by increasingly irregular rainfall, the Mendez family from Ecuador suffering from the effects of deforestation and the Chukwa family from Niger producing goat hides. The problem they faced was desertification.
Goods produced by the families
Families took their bundles of coffee, latex, goat hides or other commodities to a market over which they had no control and had to accept whatever the market decided to give them. Poor produce was rejected. As the game proceeded, families often fell below the poverty line and all production stopped until they had completed a set task. At regular intervals a radio message was broadcast impacting on the livelihoods of a particular family.
A big queue at the marketplace
The price paid for each good varied throughout the game, according to different climate conditions

A spreadsheet helped to keep a tally of how families were managing and, after several ‘years’, a plenary session helped us to understand the lessons learned. It was clear that climate change is proving to be a major problem for poor families living in the Global South and is seriously limiting their livelihood development. Only one family, through very careful organisation and a certain amount of ‘luck’ managed to progress out of poverty. Most ended up poorer than when they started.

  The quality of goods produced was checked by Dr Kevin Cook and Frank Sudlow
Kevin keeps a close eye on the figures

Everyone agreed that this was an excellent way to be made to think about some of the major effects of climate change.  Thanks Frank for a stimulating and enjoyable session. We hope Frank will be able to join us again next year.
Frank provides a summary at the end of the session

Dr Kevin Cook, Senior Lecturer in Geography