Transformational student work experience
By Jasmine Spavieri

Just as a picture can paint a thousand words, experiencing the biodiversity of the ocean first-hand is an effective way to instil passion, curiosity and knowledge about the natural world. Today, the options for students to participate in authentic science and conservation work is increasing. Such opportunities can be transformational for a student’s choice of future study and career, as well as developing their personal skills and extracurricular experience. It is also a chance for young people to engage directly in environmental conservation.

 

One example of this, where students work alongside marine biologists and scientists, is available from grassroots conservation group Alnitak. The group’s objective is to monitor the rich biodiversity of Spain’s Cabrera Archipelago Maritime and Terrestrial National Park, working from a wooden Norwegian sailing ketch.  Students join the crew as individuals or as teams, working with educators and scientists to support curriculum objectives, and gain work experience and ECTS university credits.

All hands on deck

Authentic experience means 100% participation, and for students with Alnitak, this means their involvement in keeping the ship clean, cooking with the crew – in an almost zero-waste environment – and working with the marine biologists, sailors, wildlife photographers and science communicators.

 

Students are responsible for data collection and species watch; learning how to distinguish between bottlenose dolphins and jumping swordfish, and looking out for whales, turtles, dolphins, bluefin tuna and a wide variety of seabirds. Their research contributes directly towards the management and protection of Spain’s largest national park and marine protected area, and the work contributes directly to their communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

The impact of reality

Students see cutting-edge research in action, such as using underwater hydrophones to distinguish sperm whales and dolphins as they feed, to applying satellite trackers to follow loggerhead sea turtles in real time and analysing surface water samples for the presence of microplastics. But the onboard message runs deeper than marine science. Students face conservation, sustainability and environmental responsibility head-on, empowering many to become advocates and ambassadors.

Authentic experiences

For student work experience to be transformational, it requires an authentic opportunity and a schoolwide strategy for identifying relevant partnerships. Use the following guidelines to help you:

  • Align with partners that allow students to work hands-on and directly alongside a range of professionals throughout the work experience period

  • Ensure your work experience partner provides a detailed agenda of participation and delivers evidence-based outcomes

  • Identify partners that will tailor experience to support curriculum requirements

  • Select experiences that will develop curriculum skills, personal skills and/or university credits

  • Seek out opportunities that can be transformational, placing the students out of their comfort zone – these may be harder to find but can make a powerful difference to both your students and your school

 

A teacher’s perspective

Heidi Ginn is the Environmental Science Teacher at Queen’s College, a British international school in Mallorca, whose students have participated in the Alnitak programme. She describes how such work experience has been transformational for her students:

 

“Since teaching biology at Queen's College, I always dreamed of setting up an environmental group in school to raise awareness of local issues and change behaviour. Alnitak were offering the most amazing opportunity for students: a week aboard the beautiful, historic Toftevaag with marine biologists, all totally dedicated to the cause of marine conservation. What teacher wouldn't want this for their students? 

 

The trip was truly amazing and changed them for the better. They went from thinking about change, to fully believing in change. On the ship, they were surrounded by dedicated, positive and highly driven people. They saw sperm whales close up, listened to their calls using hydrophones, saw pods of dolphins hunting and playing and measured human activity and its effects. Every minute aboard was a learning opportunity.

Upon their return, the enthusiasm of the students was infectious. They delivered presentations to all of the school, sharing their adventures and images. They spoke with all of the secondary students in year groups and organised a school debate, all raising awareness of the plastic problems and offering solutions. They organised school events and involved parents too. 

Some teachers were moved to tears to see such passion in our students. The ripples have been far-reaching. All of the school is more environmentally aware. I could not have wished for anything more successful and yet still it is ongoing.”

Jasmine Spavieri is a professional science communicator and educator and runs the educational programme for Alnitak, a non-profit organisation and Marine Research and Education Centre, dedicated to the conservation and protection of marine ecosystems. Contact jasmine@alnitak.org and follow Alnitak’s events and discoveries on Instagram @alnitakmission

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