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The Habitable Planet

July 20, 2011

Scientists are often guilty of locking themselves away in their labs/offices and forgetting why they are doing research, who it should benefit and (most importantly) who is paying them. In my mind, if I can’t justify my research to everyone in the country I’m working in, they shouldn’t be paying me and ultimately I think our duty as scientists is to share our knowledge with the world in a way everyone can understand. Education should be a major part of our work. And this is what led me to become involved in the ACCESS Habitable Planet workshops.

The African Centre for Climate and Earth System Science (ACCESS) initiated the Habitable Planet workshops (HPW) a few years ago, starting in Cape Town and branching out with workshops in the Eastern Cape and (most recently) in Gauteng (Pretoria) and Limpopo. The aim has been to encourage bright students from Universities in Southern Africa to awaken their curiosity, learn critical thinking and to help them develop the knowledge base and love for Earth System Science that will make them the scientific leaders in Africa and on an international level.

My first experience at a HPW was somewhat of a homecoming. Used to interdisciplinary science and departments I was struggling to find my place in the more segregated world of UCT. HP in Jan 2011 was a chance for me to reignite my love for Earth System Science that had flourished during my BSc in Environmental Science, but this time from the position of a teacher. Although I did not formally lecture at this workshop, I enjoyed the chance to advise on fieldtrips and give impromptu talks on subjects like ocean acidification. Naturally when the opportunity arose to give my own lectures on biogeochemistry at the workshop last month I jumped at the chance to be involved.

Discussing ocean acidification at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town (Jan 2011)

The structure for building a habitable planet is really quite simple. We start with a bare rock, a planet, the same distance from the sun as our Earth and ask “is this planet habitable?”, in the early lectures of the workshop the students learn that our place in space is not enough in itself to make Earth habitable for life. We add layers of complexity to this simple start beginning with light and air and the atmosphere and oceans, discussing their circulating behaviour and modelling the effect this has on the planet. This part of the course seems to raise a lot of questions. Modelling is seen as a mystery to most and we have been lucky to have excellent teachers in Natalie and Ben to show the students just how complicated models are, giving them an appreciation of why we can’t get all the answers from models. I’ve tried to explain that the physics is the easy part – numbers and equations are easy compared to trying to quantify biological behaviour, but I think I’ve still got some convincing to do with that one!

Ben fields questions from the students about modelling!

From physics, we add chemistry to the habitable planet model. Carl gives a brilliant lecture on water, explaining perfectly how vital it is to make any planet habitable (and he shows off by crushing some cans, not with his strength but simply by taking advantage of the amazing properties of water!). From chemistry we move towards the topic of life. A contentious issue with the many religious backgrounds in South Africa, but a fascinating story from the scientific point of view none the less. In an effort to show that “life begets life” the simple model starts to get complex with the introduction of biogeochemical cycles (my favourite bit and lecture topic for the workshop in Pretoria). The students now really have to cast aside traditional, subject-based scientific thinking and embrace the idea that physics, chemistry and biology all interact through the oceans, atmosphere, rocks, ice and biosphere to explain how our planet has been and continues to be habitable. Humans are then brought in to the mix and the students explore the issues of current climate change and environmental degradation in parallel with their concerns from an African perspective about development.

Guest lectures are a key feature of the workshops, which change at each one, to take advantage of local expertise. Palaeoclimate experts, anthropologists, conservationists and the lovely Janine from SASSI have all been highlights in previous workshops and in Pretoria/Limpopo we were particularly lucky to have lectures from a wild dog expert and a leopard expert (I’m not sure if the lecturers/students enjoyed these more!). We also got the opportunity to hear about local initiatives in the Limpopo area, working towards sustainable development and conservation. Limpopo was a great area for this workshop and we thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of Amafu forest lodge and Steve (one of the owners) expert insight in to Cycads! The big highlight for me though was the lecture on Genetics by Neville Sweijd of ACCESS. I’ve never really learnt anything about genetics and Neville gave a great lecture where I could really understand and appreciate the subject – a great example of science communication for the students.

Field trips are another exciting part of the HP workshops. In Cape Town we visited the West Coast Fossil Park, Cape Point, Table Mountain and the Two Oceans aquarium. In Pretoria I was overjoyed at the prospect of visiting the Cradle of Humankind and realising a childhood dream with a game drive in the Kruger National Park! The Cradle of Humankind is every bit as special as it should be. We were greeted by a fantastic guide with a warm “welcome home” and the assurance that no matter where we were from, Africa was the home for all humankind. Comparable to the Eden project and UK museums in terms of available information and exhibit quality, I was thoroughly impressed with the visitors centre at Maropeng. The story of Darwin and Wallace was told wonderfully through the displays in the entrance hall and this really set the mood for me as we passed through a fun boat road and vortex tunnel underground to follow the history of humankind as revealed by the fossils found in this special place. After Maropeng we visited the Sterkfontein caves where the famous fossil Mrs Ples was discovered along with other hominid fossils. Another charming and informative guide talked us through our walk around the caves – I really cannot praise these guys enough – they were truly excellent.

Coming home to Maropeng!

Sterkfontein Caves

Everything the students learn and discuss is best revealed and understood through the final part of the HP workshops – the world challenge game. The students are divided up in to 3, unequal groups to represent most developed, developing and least developed societies. They are given, highlighters, pencils and scissors to reflect their countries status and asked to make “money” by colouring in and cutting out grid squares. They must pay rent, which varies depending on the country and how much paper they use as a world to make their money (reflecting the unequal impacts of environmental degradation). It sounds really simplistic, but the realities of corruption, immigration, international politics, greed and even theft, slavery and colonionalism have been revealed as students compete for prizes! I even got robbed of my pen for keeping score this time!

I hope I can be involved in more of these workshops and similar schemes in the future. It was so rewarding to have interested students asking questions and eager to learn more. By the end of both workshops I attended, the discussions had turned in to rich debate with the students displaying new knowledge, critical thinking skills and the passion they and we will need to help get science to the public and use it to help build a sustainable future for our habitable planet.

The Habitable Planeteers - Pretoria 2011.

I’d like to thank Carl and ACCESS for the opportunity to be involved again, Nadine for her spectacular organisational skills; Amafu forest lodge for their hospitality; Natalie, Lauren and Ben for being an awesome team to work with, even when we did have to write impromptu lectures until 1am đŸ˜‰ And finally thanks to the students for pitching up to learn, even with hangovers and different beliefs I think we all managed to find common ground!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Hepe permalink
    July 21, 2011 10:15 am

    This sounds like a fantastic experience, underscoring the relevance of what you do and probably posing a whole lot more questions? How did it come to pass that it was all put together to be such a well integrated set of environmental experiences and stimulation workshops? It seems to me indicative of a lot of things for which SA is admirable and that such an educational approach would greatly benefit other places.
    Didn’t Lufkin propose exactly what you have been part of, a much greater integration of many sciences (and engineers) brough to bear upon a greater understanding of evolution, it’s uncontrolability (as in Gaia theory) and what ‘might’ have a beneficial approach towards ecological improvement?

    • September 20, 2011 10:30 am

      Just noticed I didn’t reply to you about this đŸ™‚ It is a fantastic workshop and it really does help bring us back down to reality when we tend to get lost in our in depth, detailed research. It was inspired and started by George Philander (check out his book – Is the temperature rising?) and designed to bridge some gaps between scientific and cultural groups in SA, encouraging a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists and educators. My undergraduate degree in the UK pretty much followed the workshop structure, so we’re lucky that this way of seeing the work is being taught more, but there’s definitely a lot of work to do. I would see this replace science teaching in schools – perhaps natural and human science lessons as opposed to biology/chemistry/physics which we know are impossible to disentangle when approaching environmental problems.


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