Training well-rounded and work-ready ecologists

Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog, Chris Ives wrote an excellent overview  of a recent paper about developing a translational ecology workforce. Briefly, the paper states that we need a work force that has the right combination of (1) multidisciplinary knowledge, (2) practical skills and (3) personal aptitudes.

Multidisciplinary knowledge focuses on traditional academic disciplines, like ecology, law, economics, governance, ethics and sociology. It emphasises T-shaped knowledge, where a deep understanding of a narrower sub-discipline (the vertical line of the T) is married to a more general appreciation of a wider range of topics (the horizontal line of the T).

Practical skills refer to the ability to actually get things done. This includes skills like effective communication, risk assessment, conflict resolution or project management.

Finally, personal aptitudes are those – often intangible – personality traits that make people good to work with. These aptitudes include things like patience, humility, trustworthiness, leadership, punctuality, reliability etc.

I’ve been pondering how we should equip students with these three sets of  competencies since I started my current position back in 2015. Without intending to be harsh on the authors, I wonder whether their paper actually clarifies how universities are supposed to develop students’ knowledge, skills and personal aptitudes.

The mid-ranking South African university where I work has presented a course-work masters program in environmental management since the 90s that focuses on knowledge and skills. We merge traditional disciplinary subjects (ecology, geology, economics, sociology etc.) with more skills-based subjects (i.e. project management, conflict resolution, GIS). However, our real shortcoming is developing the students’ personal aptitude.

I’ve cynically begun doubting whether it is even possible to develop these skills in a classroom; especially to students in their 20s and early 30s. Personal aptitudes like empathy, reliability, trust, and honesty are formed from early childhood. Unfortunately, being in a very unequal country, many poorer South Africans simply don’t have access to the social capital needed to nurture personal aptitude from a young age.

My impression of the large European university where I did my PhD was that personal aptitude was not developed, but distilled through a process of elimination. The purpose of their courses was not to develop personal aptitude, but rather to filter out the students without these competencies. By graduation, the remaining students all had the personal aptitude needed to succeed in the workplace, but they had these aptitudes all along! This process of elimination was only possible because there was a large pool of prospective students to start off with. Here at my current university, the pool of students is much smaller, so we can’t just filter out the students who don’t have the right levels of personal aptitude.

Another criticism of the paper is their suggestion that students seek further development opportunities through experiential learning. I assume this is through unpaid volunteerships or poorly paid internships. I agree that this is indeed a good way to develop skills, but it limits these opportunities to more affluent students who can afford to forego potential earnings to build up their skills and experiences. Ironically, the students with the means to take advantage of these experiential learning opportunities are more likely to also have the social capital (e.g. supportive families) that initially nurtured their personal aptitudes. Thus, experiential learning opportunities are less accessible to those students who probably need them the most.

So, while the paper did an excellent job in elucidating what we need in the next generation of translational ecologists, I was left feeling frustrated by the lack of clear path forward. I’d really appreciate any suggestions from readers out there on how universities can do a better job of producing well-rounded and work-ready graduates


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