Facebook, iPads and ‘extreme’ microbes in Iceland by Dr Becky Thomas, Dr Alice Mauchline and Dr Rob Jackson

This post relates to activities carried out on the EU ERASMUS Intensive Programme grant awarded to University of Reading to fund 10 students from each of Belgium, Germany and the UK, plus 5 staff in total from the three countries, to travel to Akureyri in Iceland. Once there, the grant funded a 2-week residential field course, including Icelandic students and staff, plus other lecturers from Reading, Iceland and Spain.

In July we set ourselves the challenge of combining technology enhanced learning, with a field trip to Iceland to sample ‘extreme’ microbes, with 34 students, many of whom had very little field experience. Also mix a multi-national environment with students from Belgian, German and Icelandic universities and you can see why we wanted to develop an effective online learning environment. The field trip had taken place previously in 2012 (see:http://ow.ly/A0EBo) and 2013, but this was the first year with so many nationalities involved. Our general objectives were to bring this diverse community together to teach them about microbiological techniques and processes, and to introduce them to environmental microbiology, by taking them into the extreme environments of Iceland to collect their own samples.

Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall
Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall







We chose Facebook as our platform for an online learning environment as we had experience in using it in previous modules, and with 1.23 billion active users, we hoped it would be something that many of the students were already using! We created the private group in February, and invited the students to join (making it completely voluntary). Initially we wanted to use it as a way to prepare everyone for the trip, posting relevant information and encouraging the academic staff who were involved in the trip to participate so that the students had a way of getting to know them before their arrival.

In the next stage we wanted to see whether we could use this Facebook group as a way of getting students to feel comfortable in preparing and posting a reflective blog post about their experiences on the trip. To do this we staged their learning, asking them to add short reflective posts within the private Facebook group, which could include photos and links. Not all of the students did this at first, but by the end many of them had done, or had at least commented on other peoples posts. The group also became useful for so many other aspects of the course. Simon Clarke ran a seminar, where students broke out into small groups and answered questions within this group by posting on the Facebook page. Simon was then able to discuss each group’s answers with the class, leading to some very active discussion. We also posted ‘breakfast quizzes’ which again lead to some very interesting discussion between the academic staff and students.

One element that worked very well was the use of iPads on the trip. We benefitted from investment made by the School of Biological Sciences into purchasing iPads, so that we were able to provide each student with their ‘own’ iPad facilitating many aspects of the field and lab work. For example we geo-logged each sampling location enabling students to record the conditions where their samples were taken, which helped when they came to interpret their findings.The iPads also meant that the Facebook group remained inclusive, not disadvantaging anyone who hadn’t brought along their own laptop, smartphone or tablet device.

Students using iPads in the field
Students using iPads in the field








At the end of the trip we ran focus groups with the students and staff to evaluate their perceptions of the use of the Facebook group during the trip. We are still going through all of the results, but the feedback was generally positive from both sides. The students and staff created their own safe learning environment, enhancing the experiences of both groups and enabling a different kind of learning which we couldn’t achieve otherwise.

As part of the assessment for the Reading students we set them the task of writing a short blog post about the benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multi-national setting. They also produced short videos to demonstrate the process of collecting their samples through to their lab work. They created these entirely on their iPads and the results are really impressive. If you are interested then the blog posts are available here: http://ow.ly/A0OrW and we are currently organising a TEL showcase where we will discuss this project more, later in the new academic year.

Heading to the Arctic to teach students about the wonderful world of “extreme” microbes by Dr Rob Jackson

In July, Rob Jackson and Ben Neuman led nine Part 3 students from the School of Biological Sciences to the University of Akureyri in Northern Iceland, about 100km south of the Arctic circle. At UnAk, they met with Dr Oddur Vilhelmsson, his PhD student Auður Sigurbjörnsdóttir and 8 Icelandic Masters and undergraduate students. This was the inaugural joint UK-Icelandic module, Arctic Microbiology Field Trip. One might wonder, why Iceland? Simply put, Iceland is a land of extremes – summers are mild and winters can be severe; the land has different types of geothermal, volcanic regions as well as permanently frozen glacial zones. Unlike many organisms, microbes thrive in these zones, and in doing so they have evolved remarkable tolerances eg some microbes can live in boiling mud pits at 120oC, while others are still living in glacial ice after being deposited there 1000 years ago. So this is a great place for students to see first-hand the types of environments the microbes live in – rather than just being given a culture on a plate. Moreover, students learn in-field sampling techniques as well as the practical applications of using the novel microbes. Of course, the students see some amazing countryside and sights.

University of Reading and University of Akureyri staff and students at a lava cave after sampling microbes living on the cave walls and floor.

Designing the course was hard work, especially for three microbiologists who have never led a field trip let alone designed one, especially a joint module. For example, Dr Vilhelmsson translated an entire 20-page coursebook from Icelandic into English. The course was structured as a mixer starter event for all the students followed by three field days and 7.5 lab days to analyse samples taken during the trip. Interspersed were 8 lectures (some by guest lectures from different institutes in Iceland), a free day, a preparation day followed by a student symposium where students gave oral presentations on their experiences and results. At the end, a feedback session was held to discover how the course could be improved. The students were assessed for their symposium talk, and later their lab books and a dissertation.

From the start, one UK and one Icelandic student were paired up for the entire course – this turned out to be a masterstroke as it promoted teamwork and they were also teaching each other techniques learnt in their home university. Staff, as well as students, were also learning new research and teaching approaches, which should help for future trips and professional development. Moreover, it was great for social and cultural interaction – one of the students started learning Icelandic two days in! Also early in the course, all the students had friended each other on Facebook, and unbeknownst to the lecturers, a Facebook group had been set up by all the UK students before heading off to Iceland to help them work together on preparing for the trip. During the course, staff and students alike found the three back-to-back field days with evening labs very tiring, so we adapted to provide a morning off for recovery and catch-up time for reading and lab book completion. The feedback session was very useful and most points were fairly simple, requiring some minor changes to the structuring of the course. Importantly, feedback from the students provided an overwhelming endorsement to run the course next year. Several want to learn more about microbiology, with some finding the research aspect of the teaching experience changing their minds and inspiring them to wanting to do PhDs! The UK staff were really grateful to their Icelandic colleagues for arranging accommodation, food and transport, plus labs. Although it was physically and mentally tiring, the staff are already looking forward to running the course next year and making new discoveries!