“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.
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