No luck stopping that erosion then? Slapton social science stories

I’m just back from a one-week fieldtrip at Slapton Ley in Devon. We took a mix of first year Geographers, Environmental Scientists, and Climate Change students (and a few more!) to take part in a mixed programme of field skills training. Since this is an optimistic blog, I’ll focus on the positive stories here, so you won’t here much about the quality of my bed in the accommodation!

I was responsible for the social science elements of the week, which was a great opportunity to hone the skills of those who had experienced such methodologies before, but also to introduce new skills to those nearer the natural science end of the spectrum. First and foremost, the location of the field course was fantastic, if a little remote for one or two of the students! The Field Centre at Slapton hosted us wonderfully and the food was a particular highlight! And there were lots of Cirl Buntings!

On the first weekend we had two sessions; firstly on experimental design showing how you could design an experiment to investigate the effect of an intervention by splitting groups into ‘control’ and ‘intervention’ populations. Firstly, I split the group in two and asked them to identify some photos of birds seen in the Slapton area using a field guide as help. Unbeknown to them, one group had clues telling them which ‘family’ to look at in the bird guide. Similarly, we then asked the two groups to name the 50 states of the USA, but again one group had some clues and the control group didn’t. Then the students were asked to design their own experiments and perform them on their peers using a control and intervention group – we had some interesting ideas! Experiments involved testing whether signs encouraged people to switch off the light or turn off the tap (one group didn’t have the signs in each case) and whether people would be more likely to take biscuits from a plate if a sign said ‘help yourself’. Some of them worked as expected, some didn’t, probably because baseline knowledge/behaviour in each group wasn’t the same. I was really pleased that one group decided to use experimental design for their independent project – testing whether a video of ocean plastic pollution would change people’s opinions on taking part in beach cleans. The control group received no such intervention!

Next we did some surveys on visitor’s perceptions of the Slapton coast. It was great to see some students, who were very nervous about approaching people, get over their fears and actually conduct surveys with several people! I’ve not forgotten the students who said that they couldn’t possibly talk to people, who then chose to do surveys as part of their independent project! In fact, it was heartening to see this all week – students saying they couldn’t do something, but learning that they could after trying it out!

As part of this session, we went down to look at the A379 road which had been affected by coastal erosion. I had asked my demonstrator to prepare a visual aid showing the erosion, but I was quite surprised when I got there to realise that they had taken the brief a little too seriously and 2/3 of the road was missing…..not really, the road was washed away by Storm Emma! The management of the Slapton road formed the basis of at least two student projects later in the week!

The best days were devoted to the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and on our beaches, which involved a little bit of Blue Planet. After conducting surveys on local awareness of plastic pollution in Kingsbridge (where there was a public plastic art installation with milk bottles), we collected litter on Slapton beach. Sadly we found quite a bit, even though the beach is on the cleaner end of the spectrum! The crisp packets we found were all dated before 2003, which shows that we have a big problem – no degradation at all, listen carefully manufacturers and supermarkets! We recorded the data on what we found for the Marine Conservation Society, and then we tried to display the material creatively.

The point of this exercise was never to make beautiful, award-winning art (a point lost on some people on Twitter! #hatersgonnahate), but rather to show that science communication and research impact are key aspects of academia! Let’s face it, members of the public do not engage with environmental issues by reading academic papers. They do so by watching things like Blue Planet instead! Us academics aren’t always good at presenting our work for people who aren’t like us (which is most people!). Hopefully it will plant the seed that future research needs to be communicated well, perhaps through artwork (maybe spend more than 15 mins on it!).

Overall it was a great week! I got to enjoy some time off while students did their independent projects and found Dartmouth looking like the South of France! I’m sure they’ll be more reflections in the coming days, but for now I’m happy to be home, but also happy to have experienced #envslapton18.

In case you’re wondering about the title, one group had a long running fieldtrip joke related to Hot Fuzz. They used this as a group name ‘No Luck Catching Them Killers Then?’ – it was quite amusing to see the fieldtrip leader try to work out what this had to do with their plastic pollution project, but I was rather more up with pop culture than him!

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