Kioloa and the importance of undergraduate fieldtrips

In September, I volunteered on a third year field course for five days. The trip was at Kioloa Coastal Field station and was a plant ecology course where students would come up with their own hypotheses and then collect data around the field station to then analyse and write a report on the results. My supervisor, Angela Moles and one other academic, Stephen Bonser, run the course and I helped out as a sort of a pseudo-tutor.

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The campus was such a beautiful spot on a property adjacent to Kioloa beach and the National Park
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Not a bad spot to watch the sunset

We had an absolutely awesome time away. The students were completely capable so they only required a bit of help here and there on their project design, plant identification and statistics. I mostly just hung out, took pretty photos of plants and *attempted* to get a bit of PhD work done (it ended up being a lot less than I planned haha).

I wanted to write a blog post about the fieldtrip, and how important it is for undergraduate students to go on fieldtrips in science.

First, the fieldtrip:

We’d spend most of the days helping the students sampling in the field. They were looking at a very interesting range of projects including dune facilitation of a spinifex grass, invasive species on beach paths, the restriction of canopy height by the height of a species lowest branch (what a cool concept!) and habitat edge effects on invasive species.

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The edge effects group sampling on the edge of the grass habitat and the Casuarina forest
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The tree height group measuring Eucalypt species in the forest
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The spinifex group identifying plants on Kioloa beach
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The invasive species group sampling quadrats just off the beach path at Kioloa beach

After a hard day sampling, the students would come back and we’d all have a delicious dinner and wine at the field station (let me tell you this was a very luxurious field station!). Each night there would be an informal seminar and I gave an honours presentation on the first night about my research and why an honours year in science (pretty much the Australian version of a Masters by research) is so awesome.

After dinner and the seminar we’d go down and lie on the sand looking at the milky way, before dipping our toes into the bioluminescent algae in the ocean. That was amazing. We also did one night of spotlighting and saw loads of frogs and a sooty owl!

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A tiny little frog we found spotlighting

In our spare time we read books, did puzzles, went for bush walks and flew a kite.

Second, the plants:

There’s loads of awesome plants around Kioloa, as it is still spring here, there were lots of flowers to photograph. Here’s just a few:

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Acacia longifolia – a common wattle that grows along the coast, you’ll find it along the dunes a lot on most NSW beaches
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Hooray for an orchid- Caladenia carnea
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Small, fluffy flowers on a Mabel’s Wattle – Acacia mabellae
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Arctotheca populifolia – a non-native beach species originally from South Africa. This guy is very familiar in our lab as a few members have been using it to look at invasive species for a few years; there’s thousands of them potted in our glasshouse
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Atriplex cinerea, the native, grey salt bush which grows on sand dunes
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Sweet pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum)
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It may look sweet and pretty, but this invasive, Cakile edentula 
(American sea-rocket) has nasty impacts on our coastal plants
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Fruit growing on a native geebung, Persoonia linearis.
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Prostanthera violaceae (violet mint bush) in full purple swing for spring
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I love the big yellow flowers on this climbing native plant – Hibbertia scandens
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A sweet little green spider hiding in an Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) which is an invasive flowering species originally from South Africa
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A pretty little grass head blowing in the field

And finally, the importance of field trips:

In my undergraduate degree, I didn’t do many field trips. There were only a few offered and they were quite expensive and usually over the summer break. Looking back, I wish I’d done more and gained more experience in ecological fieldwork because science is different in the “real-world” to undergraduate lectures, exams and assignments and I think field trips are a much better reflection of the industry.

Field trips are invaluable, students learn hugely practical skills that you cannot pick up through lectures, tests or textbooks. Science is so much more than rote learning and just being able to get out into the field, get organised and collect data is a big skill. As universities move more towards online teaching and learning, I hope we don’t lose the practical components of science courses, especially the field work.

Field courses are also a great way to meet new people and make friends. They break down any barriers between the lecturers and students and the students can relate to their professors in a less daunting way. This is so important for students that may decide to stay on for postgraduate or honours courses. The students were able to ask me questions and get to know Angela and Steve better and I think a few of them may end up in our lab next year!

All in all, it was a fantastic few days, if you’re an undergrad science student, do ALL of the field courses. If you’re a science alumni, enjoy reminiscing on the field course memories of your own. If you’re neither, I hope you enjoyed the pretty pictures of plants as always!

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