Categories
Issue 13

Deconstructing the NEP: how important is experiential learning in wildlife conservation?

We usually hold turtle walks starting at midnight. Going and searching for their nest, taking the eggs and putting them in a hatchery, until they hatch and then putting them back,” says Manan Chhugani, a first year undergraduate studying Environmental Science at Ashoka University, describing his midnight routine in Chennai. To stay awake, patrol the beach and protect the turtle eggs, from the stomping of possibly careless human feet. 

They are this tiny,” placing his fingers close enough to each other to imply that the eggs are only a few centimeters in size.“You can hold 20-30 of them in your hand. After [the turtle walk experience] I’ve always wanted to pursue hands-on, working with the hands, working with the body,” he continues.

 The turtle walk he went on, continues to be helmed by Chennai Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a network of school and college students who work alongside the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. But 2020’s National Education Policy gives students the option to take wildlife courses, without making field-based learning compulsory. It makes it mandatory for higher education centres to include environmental education courses and projects promoting “holistic and multidisciplinary education.” 

“The flexible and innovative curricula of all HEIs shall include credit-based courses and projects in the areas of community engagement and service, environmental education, and value-based education.”

Field based learning is indispensable for learning about biodiversity in general and wildlife in particular- there is no doubt about that,” says A. J Urfi, an Environmental Studies professor at Delhi University. So does this hold back the meaning of a “quality higher education” and could keep students from having the upper-hand in looking for jobs in wildlife conservation? This limitation of meaning can be defined by Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction as explained in his essay, “Sign, Structure and Play”.

Not including hands-on work, especially in the field of wildlife, goes against Derridian thought, whose work has been greatly influential in the late twentieth century. Derrida speaks of the “arbitrary nature of a sign,” where a sign refers to a word with its meaning. Therefore, the “arbitrariness” of a sign then means that a word’s letters have no inner relation with the word’s meaning. 

The NEP states that a quality higher education must make “good, thoughtful, well-rounded, and creative individuals” The letters that make up the words “quality education” have no fixed relationship with the meaning of being that it makes quality students. Therefore, giving “quality education” a meaning, limits the possibilities of it, which allows the NEP to leave out field-work for college students, who are otherwise taking courses meant to be experience-based. 

Dr. Divya Vasudev, founder of Conservation Initiatives, chimes in, “If [colleges] do offer field-based courses or internship-based courses for credit, during the summer semester, especially when you have fewer courses to take, it will be quite an enriching experience.You learn a lot when you go to the field, you don’t just learn from textbooks, you learn from experience,” Manan echoes this when asked about his current environmental science courses,“the only thing is you don’t have physical interaction. You can comment on the readings how many ever times you want, but the way you lead your life is always different.”

Derrida speaks of the absence of a centre when talking about the meaning of a word. This can be placed in the education setting, where a quality education can also mean the ability to experience and learn, and not simply learning from theory or research. The removal of the fixed classroom or laboratory-based learning is the removal of a centre which now allows the freedom to define education, or redefine it.

In the wildlife employment sector, Divya adds on, field-based experience “definitely gives [students] an edge, but it’s not the main thing.” While hiring people in her organisation, she says “the things that I look for, are your passion for conservation, because that’s critical.

Sleeping under tarpaulin sheets, using the toilet outdoors, collecting your own water from the nearest sources, travelling often and working with a group of people, are all add on-qualities that wildlife employers look for in the hiring process. Developing these habits, can be achieved by experiential learning in colleges.Equipping students for wildlife job-readiness as well as learn about the outdoors, outdoors. Being flexible is being without a “centre” and allows one to explore all angles of a quality education. 

Yogita Karpate, an engineer turned research consultant at Wildlife Conservation Society-India says, “my knowledge on nature, on various species and their biology is not that great, not as great as my colleagues. I would say you can pick it up when you work.” This shows another aspect of there being no “centre” to education and that learning has no point of origin in the field. 

While relating his experience with the Planet Life Foundation doing otter conservation, Manan Chhugani went looking for otter excreta, to check their movements for a conservation paper. “There are a few places they are likely to [defecate], large rocks, near a stream. I set up a camera trap to catch them doing their business. This is a very basic work you have to do if you want to start conservation.”

“It’s quite a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun. Once you see the product of the work you’ve done for a long time, best thing,” he adds cheerfully. 

Ishita Ahuja is a second year undergraduate student of Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 5

A Stymied Transition: How the Class of 2023 is adapting to ‘college life’ online

2020 has been rough for students everywhere. With the disruption of regular classes, being stuck either away from home or at home for months, and with some being directly affected by the coronavirus infection, the year has been challenging. College students had it harder than others because they also lost jobs and higher studies opportunities in addition to difficulties with assessment. While there has been some acknowledgement of the hardships faced by the class of 2020, very little has been said about the students who passed out from school this year and were college-bound right in the middle of the pandemic. They are now nearing the end of the first semester, but the journey till here has been full of stress.

The roller coaster of uncertainty started off when a nation-wide lockdown was imposed in the month of March–when high school students were taking their final Board examinations. The remaining exams were postponed. Board results got delayed until finally average scores were awarded to those who couldn’t take the exams. But this initial postponement led to further delays in admission processes that rely on the Board examination marks. For instance, many students aspiring to get into prestigious colleges like those under the Delhi University had to either gamble losing a semester and wait till November for admission lists, or let go of their plan and settle for a different college.

Most country-wide entrance examinations are conducted physically in person. Therefore, students who had to take tests like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test and Joint Entrance Examination (NEET-JEE), or the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), etc., were left hanging as the entrances were delayed for several months. It was not clear how, or whether at all, they would be conducted, given the pandemic rampaging across the country. Such circumstances affected students’ performance too.

Many students’ college plans that they had worked on for years were upturned and students were forced to settle for choices they had never even considered. Students had to consider completely new rubrics like the possibility of travel and online learning when choosing their college. And most unfortunately, several young people were not able to enrol in colleges at all. A major reason was because COVID-19 tanked an already plummeting economy, another was the economic loss due to floods in different parts of the country, thus increasing the financial burden on many sections of the population in India.

Since all learning was to be online for a while, parents might fail to see the merit in such an education. This has also been the reason for many students to not go to their college of choice, but just attend a less expensive program at a college that is in the city where they already live. Parents were afraid of the risk involved in travelling and living in a different city as the pandemic continues. Many students plan to get a transfer to a college with better opportunities in their second year, when the pandemic hopefully would have mitigated too.

After going through a rough time getting into college, perhaps the major part of uncertainty is over for the students. Most of the big decisions have been made and now they are focussed on their studies and other college activities. In fact, having gone through such a gruelling experience together, they already share something as a batch. College is a completely new chapter in one’s life, one that comes with the promise of freedom and excitement. For the class of 2023, all of ‘college-life’ has only been available online. They got Zoom instead of lecture halls full of chatter and group chats instead of college canteens bustling with groups of friends.

And yet, while the rest of us have been figuring out how to maintain relationships in a physically distant world, these students have been building new relationships from scratch, online.

Kavya, studying at a private college in Jabalpur, says that online classes are a bit dull, and she isn’t surprised that she often sleeps off during lectures and misses assignment deadlines. What she is finding unexpected, though, is how fun her online college life has turned out to be. Social media is the only space where they can hangout, and yet, it is not exactly a bad compromise. She and her friends sometimes skip classes together, have lengthy conversations on group chats and celebrate birthdays on video calls.

Being stuck at home may be an impediment to making new friends, but it might also be an important driver for the same. Young people who have probably not seen anyone other than their family members for months must feel a stronger urge to connect with others their own age.

Amaysi, a student at Sophia College, says that she has always been a people person and loves meeting new people. She was not expecting to have to make good connections this way. “I now know way more people than I might have been able to interact with physically.” says Amaysi. She has been busy helping organise her college’s annual intercollege fest, which is online this year. 

Online interactions are certainly very different from ones in real life. While that may be an annoying reality for most of us now, it is perhaps a better one for some. Individuals with social anxiety, who might experience stress being amongst people and hence behave unlike their usual selves, can find online interactions more easier. For such people, online college might actually be a space where they get to be themselves without much difficulty.

These students have not seen the actual buildings and cities that make their colleges come alive. For them college is just virtual interaction so far. The people behind the screen – their friends and professors – are the only familiar aspects of their college lives. And thus, finding these people behind the screen everyday is a blessing rather than an impediment, in a way. Of course, they hope to physically be together, and look forward to how much more real things will be for them. But for now, they are doing everything to make the best out of current circumstances. Online interactions with our loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, may not seem to be enough, but for the class of 2023, that is all they have to make do with, at least for now.

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

Picture Credit: “Gmail on Laptop in Dark” by Image Catalog is marked with CC0 1.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organization, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).