Biodiversity immersions for effective environmental education and action


Dr Wan Faridah Akmal Jusoh speaks at TEDWomen 2023: Two steps forward on Oct 12, last year in Atlanta. – Photo: Jasmina Tomic / TED

EVERY year, the International Day for Biodiversity (IDB) is celebrated on May 22 to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. This year's theme, "Be Part of the Plan," urges all stakeholders to support the implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, or The Biodiversity Plan, to stop and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

In its message for IDB, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) asserts, "Everyone has a role to play and, therefore, can be part of the plan." This powerful message reminds me that each one of us can contribute to making a positive impact on the world. But the question is, what actions can we, as educators, take to make a real difference?

The Biodiversity Plan1 (CBD 2022) outlines four goals for 2050 and 23 targets for 2030 and was adopted by the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the CBD in 2022. One of the considerations for implementing the framework (Section C, p. 7) is the emphasis on transformative and innovative education, formal and informal, at all levels. The framework also says that it should include “science-policy interface studies, lifelong learning, and recognising diverse world views, values, and knowledge systems of indigenous peoples and local communities”.

Transformative learning in biodiversity

We are no longer in an era where we head to the library or type in a Google query to find out about the world. Today, ChatGPT provides the answers but keeps us detached from the real world. Transformative learning is needed more now than ever to make sure our students truly experience biodiversity beyond a computer screen. Only then can they truly understand its value and realise they need to conserve it. Thereafter, we can teach them how to take concrete action, not just for themselves and the planet but also for communities that depend on natural spaces for their lives and livelihoods.

There is no shortcut to learning about biodiversity. Learners must step beyond the walls of traditional classrooms to gain knowledge about this subject.

The joy of field trip and fieldwork

In a recent article published in Nature, marine molecular ecologist Chris Mategna2 highlights, “Ecologists: don’t lose touch with the joy of fieldwork.” Personally, I share Mategna's perspective that this sense of connection is essential for understanding different levels of biodiversity. For example, to study mangroves, one must be willing to get their hands dirty and immerse themselves in the muddy and stinky soil to fully grasp the habitat's structural complexity, which is also home to many other invertebrates. Similarly, one must venture out at night to learn about fireflies to witness how they light up. Only then will they understand how artificial light at night impacts the firefly communication systems.

Field trips and fieldwork are vital in enabling learners to integrate book knowledge with real-life experiences. Last year, 25 Monash University undergraduates learnt how to study quadrats in a seagrass meadow in Mukim Tanjung Kupang, Johor, facilitated by local community group Kelab Alami. The fishermen also taught the students how to use artisanal fishing equipment to catch seafood, helping them better understand how fishing communities are affected by climate change impacts and unsustainable development. They are then also able to relate this to the future (un) availability of seafood on their dining tables.

It is these first-hand experiences and engagement with real people on that ground that will drive them to want to find out more, and then do more for biodiversity protection and action.

Service learning

Service learning is another excellent means of providing students with real-life interactions and opportunities to make a difference. Learners from diverse backgrounds, fields, strengths and abilities are able to come together as a team with real purpose and tangible outcomes. Over the recent turtle-nesting season, we took 30 undergraduate students from Monash University Malaysia to Terengganu to assist the WWF-Malaysia Terengganu Turtle Conservation Marine Programme. They helped excavate turtle nests, determined the number of nests that incubated and hatched successfully during the particular season and learned the possible reasons for hatchling failure from the WWF experts. As part of their group grading assessments, the students also prepared the best solution for managing issues with turtle conservation and pitched their ideas to the WWF team.

Within just a week of outdoor immersive service to the planet and species, students have broadened their horizons, determined new goals and embarked on a journey of lifelong learning for active citizenship and environmental action.

Be the part of the plan

Malaysia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but as Prof Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid3 pointed out (Bernama 2022), there are still gaps in our efforts to conserve this biodiversity. One of our greatest weaknesses is awareness. We must, therefore, be ready to adapt and improve how we teach and learn about our rich natural heritage. Biodiversity losses are occurring far faster than we are empowering our students - the time for action, and for them to be an active and effective part of the plan is now.

Dr Wan Faridah Akmal Jusoh is a senior lecturer in biodiversity and conservation at Monash University Malaysia’s School of Science.

References

1. CBD. (2022) United Nations Biodiversity Conference COP15/CP-MOP10/NP-MOP4. Montreal: CBD. Available from: https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2021-2022/cop-15/documents

2. Mategna, C. (2024) Ecologists: don’t lose touch with the joy of fieldwork. Nature 628, 692 (2024) doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-01178-2

3. Bernama (2022) Biodiversity conservation: Malaysia on right track but awareness lacking. https://www.bernama.com/en/news.php?id=2147270

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