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Exploring new horizons with Digital Field Excursions at UCF

11 June 2020

UCF students travelled the world this semester in digital form; they ventured to the high peaks and deep lakes of the Swiss Alps and spent time in the Bornean rainforest in the proverbial shoes of a researcher.

Fieldwork is a key part of the learning process in Earth and Environmental Sciences. Due to the COVID-19 situation, the planned field excursion to the island of Terschelling was deferred by a year. Rising to the challenge, digital field assignments were set up by Assistant Prof. Dr. Tessa van der Voort and PhD student Nadine Keller, using state-of-the-art research and the digital immersive resources of the Federal Office of Topography of Switzerland.

Federal Office of Topography of Switzerland
Federal Office of Topography of Switzerland

Climbing the peaks of the Swiss Alps, students used their multidisciplinary skills to investigate the resilience of various ecosystems to ongoing global environmental change. Using information on water flow, elevation, and nutrient availability, students modelled the impact of droughts and agriculture on ecosystems. This way, the UCF students learn how to create local solutions to global challenges.

They followed the footsteps of PhD student Nadine Keller (ETH Zurich) into the Bornean rainforest. Students faced challenges regarding data collection under “out-of-the-lab” conditions, and learned that working in the tropics is not just a jungle book dream come true.

Expecting to see orangutans pass over you high in the canopy? Maybe, but don't forget to also look down to fight off hungry leeches!

How do you measure rainfall and termite activity deep in the rainforest, far away from any lab or city? Students were challenged to find creative solutions on how to do research in remote field sites in the heart of the jungle. They used information and insights directly from the field and got creative to develop their own research projects.

The student researchers discovered a valid reason - perhaps the only valid reason - to stock up on 600 rolls of toilet paper. The toilet paper can be distributed onto various sites in the rainforest in order to measure the activity of termites.

Last but not least the students explored the intercultural challenges a researcher can face abroad. How do you communicate with a team of research assistants who speak a different language and are from a different cultural background? The key lies in understanding and respect towards the local context, and a lot of creativity!

'This exercise enabled us to understand Earth Systems processes and interactions'

UCF ecxchange student F. Aldair Valencia Vazquez about the digital fieldwork: ''As a nature lover, I was really looking forward to experiencing fieldwork practice this year. Nonetheless, one of the many consequences of the current crisis was the cancellation of the fieldwork practice for the ecosystem processes and services course, and having instead a digital fieldwork assignment. It’s interesting to experience how we are learning and getting ahead with the digital environment. This exercise enabled us to understand Earth Systems processes and interactions, as well as the relation and impacts of human activities on them. For instance, the exercise focused on agricultural activities and different scenarios of the consequences of climate events and the impacts of fertilizers in lake ecosystems.'' Read his full story in our blog!

Last modified:11 June 2020 11.41 a.m.

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