GCSE Field Trip to Danube Delta

danube delta trip second boat

Second boat on Danube delta tributary


This was a biology and geography three-day trip to the Danube delta wetland biosphere reserve designed to supplement the ecological units of the IGCSE specifications.

Day 1

The bus turned up ten minutes late and the driver got lost. We ended up in the middle of a herd of goats having overshot a turning by 15 minutes. A change of plan was needed so after a quick snack and room allocations we walked 1km to a patch of marshland to take samples of biological indicator species. Students got very good results, surprisingly so considering October is not an ideal time of year for macroinvertebrate larvae. I can only imagine the diversity and numbers that must be there in spring and summer. It was good for pupils to stretch their legs after the five-hour coach journey, a pack of friendly stray dogs followed us to the site, one boy got temporarily stuck in mud and we saw a grass snake. So, all in all, this Plan B turned out to be a worthwhile and enjoyable late afternoon activity.

danube delta trip stuck in mud

Stuck in the mud at Site 1

After dinner we were joined by Cristian Mitielu from WWF who gave a talk on the history of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve, its ecology and human impacts. It was fascinating to learn about the drastic changes that occurred within the area during the communist period. Wolves were exterminated by poisoning, land was drained for agriculture and musk rats were introduced from the USA so that they could be hunted for their pelts. Approximately fifteen years ago golden jackals began to appear in the southern regions of the delta, having crossed over from Bulgaria. The jackals have since proliferated and are reported to be having a major negative effect on ground nesting birds. Reintroducing wolves has been tabled as a possible solution to the jackal problem but this has been met with resistance from locals due to the wolf’s “reputation from fairytales”. There have been a couple of unreported sightings of wolves in the far north of the reserve so perhaps a natural reintroduction is taking place. This might also help reduce the number of feral horses that have exploded in population and is consequently preventing the regeneration of trees.

Pupils paid attention to these insights for the full hour and asked lots of great specification-relevant questions at the end which were answered expertly by Cristian. It always a positive experience for pupils to hear about real-life examples from experts working within the field rather than just their subject teacher – it adds weight to the content and makes for deeper learning.

Day 2

Breakfast at 7.00am and most of the students were punctual, followed by a 40-minute bus journey to Tulcea to meet Mihai Baciu for a slow boat tour of the delta’s tributaries. Just before we set off, I noticed that one of the stray dogs that joined us yesterday had been lying in the road since 6.45am and it was now an hour later. Phil, our science technician, was at hand to investigate and sadly shift the body into some nearby bushes before any of the students saw. Phil is a great example of how important support staff are, regularly going the extra mile like this.

Mihai Baciu is a bird guide, guidebook author and a speaker of German, French, English and Romanian. I put the keener half of the group on his boat with me, his enthusiasm for the biodiversity of the delta unwavering for the four hours we were out with him for. A former ranger and bylaw enforcement officer of ten years, he even stopped alongside a group of fishermen to tell them to pick up their plastic waste – a great example to the students. A few of the students’ interest wavered after a couple of hours, though they were happy enough to relax on the hull of boat and perk up when we spotted something interesting. Some of the more notable species included White-tailed eagle, lesser-spotted eagle, European pond turtle, marsh harrier, hobby, Dalmatian pelican, white stork, osprey and otter. Not bad for four hours in October! Next time I would have a break after two hours so pupils could take a rest from being on high-alert and refresh themselves with drinks and a snack.

danube delta trip European pond turtle

European pond turtle basking in the sunlight

After a late lunch back at the education centre where we were staying, pupils completed geography past paper questions and those who did not do Geography had some free time. Later on students visited what was supposed to be a meandering river site to collect some abiotic data but sadly since last year’s visit the water had been redirected into a straight channel between farmland and the vegetation cut right back. What a depressing state. I took the non-geographer biologists for a walk and we found a patch of field margin half a kilometer away that had been left to grow wild where we saw a grass snake and a few silver-studded blue butterfly but on the whole it was pretty grim. The wind was blowing what remained of the dry soil into our eyes and plastic litter dominated the landscape. Still, this gave us lots to talk about in terms of the impacts of intensive farming practices on soil erosion and wildlife populations which led into an interesting discussion about EU subsidies such as CAP.

Day 3

Day three was geography dominated, with a shoreline study that wasn’t relevant to the biology syllabus. So, I took my four non-geographers for a walk through the sand dunes where we saw a hare, swans with signets, a pair of little grebe and a hunting marsh harrier. I didn’t push discussion, nor ask for any written exercise to be completed or data collected. Sometimes it’s better to allow students just to enjoy being outside exploring and make up their own minds, whilst the teacher remains on hand to answer any questions or point out something interesting now and again.


On the whole this was a successful trip; the students were well behaved and enjoyed an intensive variety of learning experiences. The main change I would make next year is the time that we visit. Apparently the mosquitos in June make fieldwork unbearable and I certainly don’t want to put pupils off outdoor learning so perhaps end of April or first week in May would be best. The main benefit being that this is peak migration season so pupils will see colourful bee-eater, European roller and kingfisher amongst much more. The only obstacle to this option is that this is a Year 10 trip and a few pupils will be doing early entry mathematics and languages GCSE examinations around this time or very shortly afterwards. Still, it is only three days away and if we can avoid a direct clash with exams I believe it will be worth it. Getting outdoors for a short time will help de-stress pupils and we could even set aside a couple of hours per day for supervised revision – although I imagine this might be a hard sell to the maths and languages departments!

I have recommended Mihai Bacui before as a wildlife guide for anyone wishing to visit the Danube delta in Romania in a piece I wrote about my recce trip in April, but here is his website again https://www.chettusia.com/



Baneasa Forest Litter Pick

litter pick

Full bin bags await collection by the roadside

Lazy, entitled, selfish, addicted to social media. These are terms commonly used in tabloid newspapers to describe the typical teenager in 2017.

Several joggers and dog-walkers passing through a patch of Baneasa Forest during the late afternoon and early evening of Friday 29th October witnessed a scene that flew straight in the face of this pessimistic opinion – 26 pupils aged between 11 and 17 years-old volunteering three hours of their time to pick up and bag litter strewn throughout the forest edge. The number of pupils would have been even higher, but most of Year 10 were away hiking and camping out in the Carpathians as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award, amongst bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar. How the Countryside Alliance would protest, but don’t get me started!

After a brief plea during weekly assembly and a PowerPoint slide in daily notices, the parent permission slips came flowing in. Perhaps it was the image of a hedgehog caught up in plastic packaging that swung it. This was certainly not a compulsory afterschool activity, nor was it competitive, nor even pushed particularly hard by staff. The kids who signed up just wanted to make a positive impact on a small patch of local forest because it was the right thing to do.

On the subject of social media addiction, I saw three pupils using their mobile phones during the three hours we were at the site. One girl was playing music quietly out of her pocket whilst hard at work in the bracken and another called her mum to pick her up to attend a medical appointment. Next time you hear the phrase ‘man up’, think of this thirteen year old girl still insisting on giving two hours of her time after a full day at school to pick up litter in cold weather, despite being ill. The third was a boy who just couldn’t help himself but quickly put the phone away upon request. I am reliably informed by the Head of English that he was of great help within a splinter group after this. Oh, and I caught myself on my phone tweeting a live update – Not a good model for behaviour and why didn’t I just wait until after the pick was over? It didn’t need to be live!

I was filled with pride, admiration and gratitude, watching how hard the students worked. Year 6s and 7s carrying industrial bin bags laden with plastic and dumped building materials that must have weighed nearly as much as themselves. We collected 79 bags worth of rubbish in total (plus a toilet cistern), beating last year’s result by four bags. There were no grumbles, just laughter and hard work. Pupils worked right up to the very end and the result was magnificent – an area of forest edge approximately 0.5km2 gone from a dumping ground dotted with piles of empty beer cans, DVD cases and PVC window frames, to pristine habitat for hedgehogs, deer and wild boar. Pupils were briefed beforehand on what to do in the very unlikely event that they saw a wild boar – Don’t get me started on what the zoophobic alarmist brigades such as the aforementioned would make of this. Alas none did. Though there were lots of signs of their presence.

Most of us could probably do with spending less time on social media, but it isn’t children walking 100m into the forest to dump building waste. It is lazy, entitled, selfish adults. It’s a good job so many of the next generation seem prepared to clean up our mess, offering hope for the future.

Year 10 Trip to Vacaresti Nature Park

vacaresti kids

Vacaresti Nature Park has received a lot of international attention over the past couple of years, with feature articles in National Geographic and The Guardian. Prince Charles visited on 30th of March, guided by members of the Vacaresti Nature Park Association, where he planted a white poplar tree. Vacaresti area was a thriving urban settlement until 1986 when Nicholae Ceausescu had the area bulldozed to make way for a vanity project (one of many) – a lake topped with a huge fountain that he and his wife Elena could enjoy. The project hit numerous failures and was finally abandoned after the revolution against the communist regime in 1989. For years the site lay abandoned, fenced off and able to grow wild. In May 2016 the site was officially granted nature park status.

Spanning 183 hectares and located just 4km away from Bucharest city centre, this natural gem is home to over one hundred species of bird, including ferruginous duck, marsh harrier, willow warbler and common cuckoo (we heard two calling). There is a family of five otters, a species indicator for high water quality. I could go on but suffice to say Vacaresti is brimming with biodiversity.

I got in touch with Vlad, official biologist at Vacaresti, a few months ago on the off chance that he might be available to take a group of thirty Year 10 geography and biology students around the site during the first day of their annual trips week. He was happy to do so and offered to take them up to the 17th floor office observatory where he gave a talk on the history and importance of the site. Vlad by his own admition is used to talking to primary-age pupils but his presentation was very interesting and gave a great personal insight into the process of turning this once concrete mass into a thriving biological hotspot. Next year, I will ask him to come to our school a week before we visit to save time, having described the biology syllabus and how it links with our planned fieldwork to him, detail I was too brief on this time around.

Students spent a total of an hour and half carrying out field work, a lot less than we had originally planned but it was probably for the best as the temperature hit 30oC. Split into groups of three, students sampled areas around one of the smaller lakes using quadrating techniques learned the week before in our rewilding zone, cautiously throwing the 1m2 behind their heads to avoid bias. Later in the classroom we talked about how using a grid over a map and random number generator to choose co-ordinates would have been more reliable.  Each student received a laminated pamphlet with pictures of common European plants, although Google seemed the preferable source for identification, not least because so many species were missing from the guide.

Each student drew an enlarged sketch of an invertebrate or wildflower, as they will have to in the alternative to practical examination next year from a black-and-white photograph. Pupils mainly drew from pictures taken on their mobile phones, my favourite being of a Southern damselfly parasitised by seven symmetrically arranged mites – one in the middle and six either side. The drawing is worth four marks out of forty in Paper 6 which is worth 20% of the total score (Paper 6 is one of three papers students will sit, the multiple choice and structured answer papers being worth 30% and 50% respectively), so it doesn’t carry major weight but it is four marks in the bank if perfected. Other choices of drawing included a mystery species of red-spotted ladybird and morning glory.

Some of the students had to power through their aversion to creepy crawlies, a common dislike that I find doesn’t become a significant hindrance if not given too much attention, but a couple of the girls seemed more than a just bit squeamish and I must admit I felt really quite sorry for them around the sheer volume of bees, spiders, beetles and damselflies. Nevertheless they persevered and I hope that they will feel more comfortable around bugs in future.

The view from the 14th floor observatory was spectacular and linked in with the GCSE Geography requirement to draw site plan sketches but next time we need to get into the field quicker, with a break in the shade of a tree to top up on water and sunscreen. Overall, a successful trip that needs some tweaking.

A 3D-printed Homo naledi skull!

H. naledi

Homo naledi has caused a lot of excitement and intrigue in palaeoanthropology and evolutionary biology since its discovery in 2013 by Lee Berger and his team in South Africa. This hominid had many of the characteristics we normally associate with humanoid species that lived around 2 million years ago, having a small brain and curved fingers. But recent analysis has concluded that the fossils could be as young as 200,000 years old – placing it at approximately the same time as early Homo sapiens. So rather than being an ancestor of modern humans, we might surmise that these individuals overlapped with the appearance of our first H. sapiens ancestors. It is not too unreasonable to assume that our appearance might have played a significant part in the extinction of this relic species, given that so many other extinctions coincide with the appearance of modern man.

I have wanted to get my hands on a few casts of humanoid species for years but have always found them too expensive to justify given the small amount of human evolution content typically covered by students in secondary school science curricula and syllabi. Luckily, the discoverers of H. naledi made the fossil scans publicly available, going against the field’s normal habit of protecting the blue prints whilst they carry out tests and so on. I looked up the codes and forwarded them to our tech guy who duly set out to print what resulted in a beautifully detailed H. naledi skull cast. Twenty four hours later I was face to face with Nigel, Nora or whatever the students decide to name him/her.

Surprisingly small yet still recognisibly human-like in form, the cast has made an excellent addition to the biology classroom shelf alongside a model of a double helix and a fox skull found in nearby Baneasa forest. Students love visual aids and will enjoy exploring the skull without having to worry too much about being careful. It took a few hours to print and cost the equivalent of less than five pounds. Obviously the 3D printer was expensive and should be taken into consideration for total cost but now I know a bit more about this amazing technology I will be on the look-out for the codes to print similarly interesting artifacts. Perhaps we will print more bones and get students to assemble the parts. That would be very cool.

Long-eared Owlet in School!

owlet 1

Owls are nesting opposite the Science Garden! The discovery could not have come at a better time. Poor weather meant I had an hour to alter my lesson plan before Birding Club showed up for their weekly after school activity. An English teacher brought me a photograph of an owlet during a Year 8 lesson. I sent a member of Bird Club in the lesson to investigate. This boy loves wildlife and was delighted to get away from physics questions for ten minutes. He struggles with reading and writing so his recent ecology test score did not reflect the wealth of knowledge he can call upon at the drop of a hat, from naming frog species to describing predator-prey interactions. He has extra time and a scribe for tests but we still have a lot of progress to make before his grades begin to reflect his ability.

We tried to keep the location of the owlet secret to avoid disturbance but by the time Birding Club arrived at the scene, a handful of maintenance staff had gathered. Some were pulling on branches to get a better look and taking flash photographs right up close to the bird. I dispersed them in as polite a manner as possible and a whole school email was sent out in English and Romanian asking for people to keep their distance.

Research from my Birding Club members told us that the owlet is a long-eared,  exhibiting a behaviour known as branching. This is when offspring leave the nest before being able to fly, taking up residence in a nearby branch to spread predation risk. The students were delighted with the bird, showing real concern for its welfare and interest in finding out more about its biology. We located another chick and an adult, perched side-by-side high up in an adjacent pine tree. One of the boys rushed off to grab his sketch book, coming up with a skillful drawing in less than five minutes. I love seeing a different side to students. It’s one of the main joys of running an extra-curricular activity, the less formal structure allowing pupils to express their individual personalities more freely.

We decided to keep knowledge of the location of the other owls within Birding Club to avoid any more disturbances. The boys offered keep watch over the area during break and lunch, thinking up elaborate tales to tell people so they didn’t pass through, including the beautifully simple “Don’t go down there, it smells”. Luckily this morning I found the owlet in a much higher branch in different tree so this wasn’t necessary. Seeing the boys observing the bird completely transfixed, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit envious. I like to believe I feel just as excited by wildlife experiences as I did when I was their age, trying to avoid exaggerating or romanticing childhood events. I was indeed enthralled by the owlet, having never seen a long-eared up close, but looking at the delight on the boys’ faces made me realise I am now harder to please. I either need to build a time machine or see a wild wolf to feel as they did. I am in the right country to see wolves, so I can put the time machine on hold.

On a less positive note, I put a photo of the bird (taken from a sensible distance) on to the school’s daily notices with a plea to keep away from it. Apparently one Year 10 boy asked his form tutor “Why don’t they just kill it?” assuming the owlet must be dangerous. He will be visiting Vacaresti nature reserve with me next month so that will provide a good opportunity to work on his attitude.

owlet 2

A Talk on Rewilding Europe

wisent image

A couple of months ago as part of a Science Week programme, our school welcomed Adrian Hagatis from WWF Romania who came in to talk to a group of thirty students about the work he has been doing in partnership with Rewilding Europe. Adrian drove for three hours to give the talk at no fee, which focused on examples of rewilding in Romania. The talk was well prepared, informative and pitched at an appropriate level. Most of the students in attendance study Biology GCSE or A – level, save for a few keen Key Stage 3 pupils, so it was relevant to the ecology and conservation units that form part of their respective courses. More than this, the talk gave students an impression of the amazing wildlife found within their country of residence and some of the challenges they face. I think too often when reading conservation news and, to a lesser extent, biology syllabi content we are left feeling hopeless at the plight of threatened species.

Adrian’s talk was optimistic, largely focused on the solutions to some of the problems facing species in Romania today, from sturgeon to bison. This left pupils feeling positive but at the same time acutely aware of what they stand to lose as Romanian, European or global citizens without significant action. From reading between the lines of the feedback I received, pupils enjoyed listening to an expert working in the field who could give insights into real examples beyond what a teacher in the classroom could ordinarily tell them!

The school made a donation to WWF Romania to show our appreciation and I have spoken to members of their education department about building a long-term relationship that will involve Sixth Form students going to visit European bison release sites. Two of my Year 12 biologists were particularly inspired by the talk, staying behind to ask Adrian questions about back-breeding eurochs and his opinions on mammoth cloning. He dealt with the questions in a sensitive matter-of-fact way that satisfied the pupils’ curiosity until we had to call it time for next period. I must make sure a trip is planned to take place before this time next year when these pupils will be sitting their final A2 exams.

Given that a lot of our pupils are from powerful, influential Romanian families I hope a few of them took home the message and raised awareness in parents. Perhaps it will shape some of the students’ own decision making after they land or inherit powerful positions themselves. Here’s hoping.

Book Review – The Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies

the cuckoo

I was inspired to pick up this book after seeing a rufous female common cuckoo on my recent trip to the Danube Delta and listening to an enjoyable interview with Nick Davies on The Life Scientific podcast during a hair-raising drive home through an unseasonal blizzard.

Davies is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge and has studied cuckoos on Wicken Fen since 1985 (the year of my birth, pleasingly). The Cuckoo is a mixture really of Davies’ memoirs as a field ecologist and the science behind brood parasitism. He describes how his experiments have led to interesting findings about cuckoo evolution and the arms race they are engaged in with their hosts. He describes the functions behind aspects of cuckoo morphology and why some specialist sub-species are better at mimicking host eggs than others, this largely being due to the amount of time that the host species has been under significant selective pressure to reject odd-looking eggs. He draws upon lots of fascinating examples of other parasitic bird species and non-parasitic cuckoos from around the world from Japan to West Africa. Davies makes the very valid point that perhaps we should regard UK cuckoos as being an African species given that they spend twice as long living next to lowland gorillas than alongside cattle in Britain! One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the explanation as to why cuckoos roughly resemble sparrow hawks, particularly the presence of barring, having not previously noticed the similarity myself.

Davies’ accessible, clear style of writing reminded me of first reading The Selfish Gene in my second year of university. I remember feeling as though what seemed like lots of stiff, fusty facts suddenly fit neatly together into a beautiful and exciting overarching concept. Before reading The Cuckoo I thought – “Cuckoos. They’re brood parasites that overwinter in Africa”. Reading The Cuckoo, I have learnt that there is a lot more to them!

Davies cites the work of Richard Dawkins and John Krebs a few times in the book which gives a good refresher on the ideas of kin selection. In chapter nine Davies claims to have disproved Dawkins and Krebs’ suggestion that cuckoo chicks rely on manipulation (as opposed to deception at the adult stage) to trick the host species into feeding it. Dawkins and Krebs likened the urges of a reed warbler, for example, to feed any begging mouth within its nest to the compulsion of a drug addict to get their next fix. Davies tells us that his findings show reed warblers will readily accept the chicks of other species besides the cuckoo, such as dunnock, and thus the drug analogy is wrong. Now, perhaps an analogy is not the most robust of ways to present a scientific idea but I think Dawkins and Krebs’ holds firm. The cuckoo chick is manipulating the reed warblers’ instinct, insofar as it is taking advantage of the host’s inability to resit feeding a gaping mouth within its nest, even if dunnocks are not doing so as a life-history trait. I can’t help but think deception would be the wrong word to describe the cuckoo chick’s behaviour because the reed warbler does not necessarily believe the cuckoo is its own genetic offspring but it might simply be so full of hormones that it can’t resist the urge to provide it with food. Davies describes how even now when observing in the field he is perplexed by the sight of a reed warber feeding a cuckoo chick eight times its own size. Maybe I have misunderstood Davies’ argument. Perhaps Dawkins and Krebs’ are correct in their thinking but should move away from the ‘junkie’ analogy to explain it. See what you think.

The book ends with a reflection on how and why the UK cuckoo population has reduced so drastically over the thirty summers during Davies’ observations – a sombre but unsurprising end. I have heard older family members talking fondly about how the call of a cuckoo was a common sign of spring when they were growing up. It makes sense alongside the figures that I was 31 years old and in Romania by the time I had my first good look at one.

If you are looking for a popular science book that is sufficiently evidence and data loaded to back up statements without requiring regular re-reading of paragraphs (Yes, I am thinking of A Brief History of Time) this is an ideal choice. I read one chapter per night and always looked forward to the next. I’ll be adding The Cuckoo to our school’s library collection in the hope that raising awareness in young readers (15+) makes some small contribution towards reversing that downward trend in cuckoo numbers. 4/5

Birding Club: Week 1 – Identifying Common Species

I have attached PowerPoint slides for the first Bird Club session. Students will receive 12 bird outline templates (6 per page) and coloured pencils. If binoculars can’t be provided by school, eBay or Decathlon are good places to look. Students should bring a small notebook, though this will not be required today.

  1. Ask students what birds they already know. They can discuss in pairs and then feedback to the class. Key questions – What does it look like? Have you seen one before? Where did you see it? Is this bird common? Do you have a name for this bird in your first language?
  2. Teacher runs through some key common species, using RSPB chart.
  3. Students jot down a description of Great Spotted Woodpecker, based on image. They then swap and add to partner’s list. Feedback to teacher and list five common points on board. Encourage correct terminology such as crown and nape.
  4. Students watch 5 minute YouTube video and colour-sketch templates so they have rough images of twelve species. You might have to pause.
  5. Students go outside and use their diagrams to identify species around campus. They can tally what they see.
  6. Class feedback. Key questions including, “Did anybody see anything not on the chart?”
  7. Plenary – Using mini-whiteboards, students write the name of birds shown at the end of the presentation. Pupils are given 30 seconds for each slide, no conferring. Count down from five and all students show answers at the same time.

YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amYUDQDtm9E

PowerPoint slides: Birding Club Week 1

Planning a Student Trip to the Danube Delta


Cruising the Danube, Mihai at the wheel

I am thinking about taking Year 12 and 13 Biology students to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation next academic year. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 6,265km2 wetland mosaic of islands, tributaries and freshwater lakes frequently features in top ten lists of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Whilst this may be a contentious accolade, the Danube Delta certainly boasts a huge wealth of animals with over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species.

Last week my fiance and I went on a three-day reconnaissance. The weather was terrible, with rain, wind and even heavy snow seriously holding us back from the amount of hiking and birding we had planned. Nonetheless we did manage a day-trip with a guide who turned out to be ideal for school groups. Mihai Baciu is an ex ranger, photographer, multi-linguist and naturalist. He took us out on his boat along with a group of French birders and his assistant for a full day of birding and conversation about everything from golden jackals to cuckoo morphs and the increase in Romanian ecotourism over the past ten years.

The trip cost 50 Euro per person. Lunch was provided, which consisted of a delicious homemade chicken soup followed by Spanish style stew (Mihai’s assistant lived in Spain for sixteen years) washed down with red wine and palinka! I think we’ll opt out of the alcoholic drinks for the school trip, although I can think of a couple of students who would be keen!

A lot of migratory species we were hoping to see hadn’t yet made it due to the unseasonably cold weather, most notably bee-eater and roller, but we still managed to tick off close to fifty including a few firsts including my first good view of a lesser-spotted eagle. Mihai knows the delta and its wildlife like the back of his hand. He is an expert birder, having authored two bird guides specific for the area. Mihai’s passion for wildlife and level of knowledge really shone through. When he overheard me say to my fiance “It actually looks a lot like the Amazon” he proudly responded with “No. The Amazon looks like the Danube”.

danube recce

Cormorants and spoonbills nesting in a tree

I’ll have to have a think about what objectives the trip would aim to achieve. At the moment I think mapping levels of biodiversity through different areas, encompassing varying levels of human influence could be interesting. Measuring dissolved oxygen, pH and nutrient levels using data loggers would add useful data. There’s a side of me that wants the pupils to spend one of the days simply spotting wildlife and enjoying eachothers’ company without any expectation to note down observations or gather data. As AS and A level Biologists, they will develop an appreciation for how lucky they are to have such amazing wildlife just four hours away by car.

I remember paying a visit to Cat Tien national park which was also a four hour drive away from a previous international school I taught at in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a view to organising a trip there. I was disappointed with the lack of wildlife, the national park showing severe signs of ’empty forest syndrome’. This site had previously contained a population of Indochinese tigers and is where the last remaining Vietnamese Javan Rhino was killed for its horn in 2010. In hindsight, perhaps I should have ran the trip anyway to show pupils first-hand the problem of illegal poaching and habitat loss. I decided in the end to take the group (Year 10 GCSE Biology) to a TRAFFIC wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of HCMC, which they enjoyed and did learn a lot from.Hopefully there will be no such need for such a decision in Romania for many years to come, especially with the decline in bear ‘entertainment’.

Early May next year is the ideal time to take a group the the Danube Delta. Apparently June-August is out of the question due to extremely high mosquito numbers making it unbearable. I want to inspire pupils, not put them off! Bee-eater and roller will surely have arrived by the start of May so we can observe them nesting alongside one another in sand banks. What a cacophony of colour that will be!

Mihai Baciu’s website can be found here and I fully recommend him: http://www.chettusia.com/


Suggested Additions to the Biology Key Stage 4 National Curriculum


Hey, look! A sparrowhawk!

My previous (and first) blog post was about why I think it would be better, in terms of overall impact and straight-forward application, to bolster natural history content in the biology component of the current national curriculum for science rather than introduce an entirely new GCSE in natural history.

Science GCSE courses are broadly split into two levels – core and extended. The terminology, grade boundaries and grade limits might change slightly but the basic principles remain the same. For Cambridge (the examination board that I am currently teaching at GCSE), students can achieve up to a C if they pursue the core route and an A* for extended. Practical assessment is not differentiated. The expectations for factual recall and application are of course greater for students sitting extended papers compared to core but the topics are the same. A core student, for example, would be expected to describe factors that limit rate of photosynthesis where an extended student can explain this in terms of enzyme activity. I think that there is an argument for an intermediate option where the maximum grade is a B but that’s a matter for another day!

The national curriculum provides the basic blueprint for what a course should contain. Examination boards must build around this to create a syllabus that will get the green light from Ofqual, the UK government’s examination and qualifications regulator. As outlined above, core students will follow a basic path that ticks the curriculum’s boxes without deviating too much; extended courses go into greater detail. This detail could be morphological, behavioural, whether or not the species is invasive, and so on.

Here is the main point that I would like to see included in the national curriculum for England, possibly replacing the current expectation that students can identify species using a dichotomous key:

Identify and describe twenty-two UK species: four mammal; four bird; three reptile; three amphibian; three fungus; three plant; two fish.

I am sure that lots of people would choose different clades to these and I would be interested to read any contributions. I am not suggesting that these are the best choices but you see the basic idea. This gives examination boards the foundations around which to build syllabus content, allowing plenty of room to play with for extended students. Rather than prescribe species, I would leave it open for the awarding bodies to decide which to include but one would expect some cross-over.

These would be my preferred choices:

Mammal: Red fox; Common hedgehog; Red squirrel; Harbour porpoise

Bird: Great tit; House sparrow; Wood pigeon; Sparrowhawk

Reptile: Adder; Common lizard; Slow worm

Amphibian: Common frog; Smooth newt; Common toad

Fish: Three-spined stickleback; Basking shark

Fungi: Wood mushroom; Death Cap; Cauliflower fungus

Plant: Willow tree; Oak tree; Bird’s foot trefoil

Remember that these are just suggestions and the very bare bones of what would then be built upon by the examination boards. Acquiring the ability to name these twenty-two species would give around 700,000 students annually a light introduction into natural history and add to their daily lives whether they choose to pursue it further or not. As mentioned, a more detailed extended/supplement syllabus could include describing three life-history traits for each species for example.

You might think that this is all a bit basic and perfunctory. I ask you to remember that this is a straightforward, easy to implement step towards improving young people’s engagement with nature. Most people reading this blog will have a strong passion for wildlife. We must keep in mind that we can’t impose the full extent of our personal interests, as important as they may be, upon every 14-16 year old in an English comprehensive school.

Familiarity with common species is important nonetheless, which is why I think improvements should be made. The national curriculum prescribes guidelines for subject matter that all Key Stage 4 comprehensive and the majority of private school pupils learn, thus the inclusion of identifying UK species would impact the many thousands who couldn’t care less about a sparrow hawk and budding naturalists alike. But most important of all, it gives every pupil following the regular programme of study the opportunity to discover or further nourish an interest in natural history. We would expect some to delight in the extended content, whilst impacting others only insofar as them taking a bit more notice of wildlife in their local park. I would like the UK to produce over half a million young people every year who can say “Hey, look. A sparrowhawk!” once in a while, whilst keeping options for further study wide open for those more interested post-16.