Environmental students in ivory tower, says prof

Argues fieldwork is being neglected


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Today's environmental students are not gaining the practical experience needed because they spend too little time outdoors and outside the city, says a University of Manitoba biologist.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/02/2011 (4484 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Today’s environmental students are not gaining the practical experience needed because they spend too little time outdoors and outside the city, says a University of Manitoba biologist.

Prof. Gordon Goldsborough said environmental students are increasingly taught they can become environmental experts from books and the Internet, instead of doing fieldwork.

“How can you make well-informed policy decisions without having any real experience? I don’t think they can possibly be true environmental scientists without having the background in environmental work outdoors,” said Goldsborough, former director of the Delta Marsh Field Station.

Prof. Gordon Goldsborough

In 2009, U of M cut back the station’s operations, and it now closes for most of the winter.

His comments come at a time when enrolment in environmental studies at the U of M “is rocketing,” in the words of one professor. The faculty of environmental studies was gorged with more than 420 students as of 2009, the most recent figure provided by the university.

Goldsborough first made his criticism at the annual Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual meeting in Brandon in December, then elaborated in an interview.

“Would you want to fly in a plane where the pilot has never actually flown a plane except in a flight simulator? Why would you want someone working for your environmental organization who has barely worked outdoors?” he asked.

Students lacking fieldwork aren’t prepared when they graduate, Goldsborough said. It opens up tomorrow’s environmental leaders to charges of hypocrisy and could promote an overly idealistic view of nature.

“One of the difficulties I have is recruiting good students, because when they hear they have to go outdoors, particularly in a marsh where they might get rained on or bug-bitten, most of them would just as soon have a nice comfortable desk job in Winnipeg,” he said.

You can’t be a proper environmental expert from an office cubicle, he maintained.

“When I’m hiring students and they tell me they’re from a farm background, automatically they go up a rung in my ranking. Then I know they have some experience, they’re grounded, they know that things aren’t always going to be pleasant.”

Goldsborough said he’s taken flak for his comments from colleagues.

Funding and increased sensitivity to liability insurance have impacted fieldwork for students across the country, said Norman Halden, dean of the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment Studies at U of M.

Students today must sign waivers containing long lists of potential dangers they might be exposed to on an excursion outside the city.

But Halden disagreed that students are doing less fieldwork. He said it may seem that way because the types of fieldwork are much more diverse than 10 years ago. He listed examples from Arctic research to working with Manitoba Conservation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and FortWhyte Alive. There’s also the new Northern Manitoba Mining Academy in Flin Flon.

“I don’t necessarily agree (Goldsborough) is accurately reflecting what’s going on,” Halden said.

Goldsborough’s criticism extended to government, too.

“Most of the civil servants have to sit at their desks because there’s no budget to pay for the fuel in their cars. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

“Conservation. Water Stewardship. You name the department. They don’t have a budget to do fieldwork. At some point, you have to get outdoors.”


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