Teaching Students on Global Environmental Placements with Raylene Cooke and John White


NOV, 2019

Teaching & Learning
International Engagement
Work Integrated Learning
Located Learning

Raylene Cooke and John White are Associate Professors in the School of Life & Environmental Sciences, in the Faculty of Science Engineering & Built Environment.

Both Raylene and John are award-winning academics involved in structuring premium, highly-immersive located learning experiences in the workplace, wilderness and around the world. Their international offerings in the Bachelor of Environmental Sciences (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) are part of a greater scaffolded journey for students – taking them from theory, to practice and preparing them for employment.

Whether our students are in the jungles of Borneo on our environmental study tour, on a Global Environmental Placement conducting biodiversity research in the Peruvian Amazon or working in a rhino reserve in Uganda, they are challenged every day to see problems through the eyes of locals. There is nothing more inspiring than walking in the shoes of someone else, to get a clearer and more complete understanding of your discipline.

Above: Raylene & John
Right: Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Deakin Video

Below-left: The fire is at the centre of the culture of the indigenous Kelabit tribe of Borneo. It is an excellent place for students to discuss the environment and how its importance in indigenous culture.

Below-right: Student swimming with stingrays on their global placement.

Aside from an emphasis on guiding students through their educational and professional journey we hope to foster a deep intercultural awareness through opportunities for global engagement. Work placements or study tours overseas are offered at every year level of the Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) to ensure students have access to new global contexts to develop resilience, adaptability, cultural reflexivity, capacities for intercultural communication and enjoy a first-hand experience of wildlife conservation abroad.

At the core, our approach works around a scaffolded Work Integrated Learning path that guides students from first year through networking with industry and working in remote locations on complex conservation issues, to second year, where the students focus on teamwork and undertake professional placements overseas with international organizations. In third year students complete another professional placement but also receive training in articulating their skill set and developing professional and highly targeted resumes. Students in third year also undertake interview training and participate in interviews with a professional environmental recruitment agency. 

Above: Jungle trekking in the Kelabit highlands of Borneo.

 There is no doubt that many of our students start with highly idealistic and Western-orientated points. Our response in these global programs is to help our students shift their thinking from local issues with western ‘solutions’ to a different order of thinking that engages with the complex arena of global issues and cultural specificities. One tool to spark this train of thought is the Intercultural Readiness Check — a compulsory module taken before their travels. The check offers advice into how to best respond in new contexts and provides competency feedback to address how they might practically adjust their behaviour or thinking. This helps students approach the many situations they face abroad that require reflexivity and an attuned cultural awareness.

Fundamental to our teaching approach is the creation of a life-long community of learners, where students, alumni and staff feel part of a friendly and supportive network. This is an imperative part of the student journey (in terms of their learning experience and emotional support at home and abroad) and for their future fieldwork and careers after they finish their degrees (as many alumni offer opportunities back to graduates).

Above-left: Students coming to grips with how modernisation has impacted land use in indigenous landscapes. Understanding all change is not bad, and in fact may have benefits for conservation.

Above-Right: Student at Ugandan rhino reserve.

Below: Student placement  working with government agencies such as Sarawak forestry to understand orangutan conservation.

For others looking to run field programs here are a few tips:

1. Keep the students busy at all times during overnight field trips. I say this for a couple of reasons – the first is that when they are busy and engaged in the activities they can absolutely see the value in being away from home. If they have too much free time they can think “why am I here” and “we didn’t need to be in the field for this long”.  Secondly – keeping them busy keeps them out of trouble!

2. Make sure the students are well-briefed and prepared before the trip.  We have a lot of introductory material and activities that the students need to do beforehand so that they understand what is expected of them and it puts the whole field trip into context. When we first started running these trips 15 years ago we kept the activities a surprise but learnt over the years that the students are much better prepared and engaged when they know what to expect.

3. The staff. It is essential that you have engaged staff that want to be on the field trip. We have the same staff every year and it is the staff who make the trip. Engaged, enthusiastic, passionate staff are so important and the students absolutely love being in the field and learning from these staff.

4. A sense of community. This is also really important – especially at first year. The students need to feel part of community and we spend a lot of time before the trip getting to know each other and making sure that the students feel part of the group and are not anxious and worried about being away from home and not knowing anyone. On the trip activities are undertaken in small groups and these groups are different from the cabin groups so students are constantly working and connecting with different fellow students.  

5. Preparation! The field trips require a lot of preparation and organization. These trips are booked 12 months ahead of time and the organization and “thinking” never ends. They are a huge commitment in terms of staff time and energy and in many ways go well beyond the teaching allocations for units. BUT, the student experiences and outcomes are enormous both in terms of hand-on experience, technical and generic skills and retention. The Wildlife and Conservation Biology students are a very tight cohort who always support and encourage each other, and we believe this is because of the friendships and support groups they make while away on these remote field trips.

For more on how to structure international placements and study tours or the Bachelor of Environmental Sciences (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) please contact Raylene Cooke & John White.

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