Teaching Matters

Conservation Science – Learning outside of our comfort zone

Isla Myers-Smith and Aidan Smith discuss their award-winning course Conservation Science

Conservation Science has been designed to take students out of their comfort zone through tutorial groups and activities such as role playing on some of the more controversial conservation issues. Conservation is sometimes about making tricky decisions!


Student activities on field trip
Discussing rewilding in the highlands of Scotland around the campfire and role playing “Dragon’s Den style” for which species should be conserved when allocating conservation resources.


We also introduce students to quantitative aspects to the field through hands-on activities in biodiversity monitoring using data collected with Pokémon Go, island biogeography using data collected by students in a model dispersal system involving Tupperware containers and animal-shaped breakfast cereal and mark-recapture using animal cracker populations and a wildlife management scenario. Getting hands-on helps concepts stick!


Students collect samples on a field trip
Coordinating the data collection from our archipelago of Tupperware container in our island biogeography experiment.


Students are encouraged to conduct the quantitative analyses together in groups using the statistical software R and to share their code publicly following open science protocols. Getting quantitative isn’t scary, it’s fun!


Graph and list of Pokemon located on field trip
Abundance of Pokémon species recorded on the Central and Kings Buildings campuses of the University of Edinburgh. Does the Kings Buildings campus have a greater diversity of Pokémon or was there a sampling bias in our data collection?


The course has a field trip to the Cairngorms to experience Scottish conservation issues in a real world context. We discuss topics such as rewilding, the enhancement of natural woodland habitat and conflicts in land management for wildlife, tourism, hunting, agriculture or other land uses. Seeing conservation in practice helps to make the jump from theory to reality.


Students discussing on a field trip in the Cairngorms
The Conservation Science course on the field trip to the Cairngorms discussing conservation in action in the Cairngorm Region, arguably Scotland’s most wild landscape.


Assessment on the course is designed to reflect real-world activities in the field of conservation including opinion pieces for the scientific literature, poster presentations for conferences, blog posts for the public and PostNotes to communicate to a policy audience.  Real-world assignments provide students with relevant experience for careers in conservation!


Assessments from the 2015 Conservation Science course including an opinion piece, blog and PostNote.
Assessments from the 2015 Conservation Science course including an opinion piece, blog and PostNote. All forms of real-world communication that Conservation Scientists uses in their careers.


Student feedback on the course have been very positive with the course being awarded the Edinburgh University Student Union teaching award for Innovative Assessment and received nominations for Best Course in 2016.

You can browse the course blog on Wordpress.

This year’s students say:  

Lecture + Journal club + interactive (fun) activity= Seems less serious because it’s enjoyable, but you actually learn a lot.

The hot topic [opinion piece assignment] is a great way to be able to really focus and develop your knowledge on an issue you’re interested in.


Our course alumni say:

This course made me fully appreciate how powerful group debate can be as a tool for learning. Conservation Science melds cutting-edge assessment techniques with old-fashioned scholarly discussion to produce an engaging and focussed learning experience.

John GodleeEcology and Environmental Sciences, 2016

For me, Conservation Science was a fantastic course to be a part of not only because I learned a lot, but also because this course set a great example for the engaging, inspiring and innovative teaching I want to one day deliver when I am teacher.

Gergana DaskalovaEcology and Environmental Sciences, 2016