Making a difference: Helping save the world's rarest parrot
A case study about the benefits of cooperative education from a student's perspective.
Imagine spending your summer holiday on a pristine island, untouched by human civilization helping one of the worlds most endangered birds in its fight for survival. This was the reality for Calum Ninnes, a second year Biology BSc(Tech) student from The University of Waikato.
Calum spent his summer on Codfish Island also known as Whenua Hou, helping out the National Kakapo Team in their quest to help understand the kakapo’s breeding behaviour, and to help facilitate their recovery.
Benefits for Calum
Calum stated at the end of his ten weeks work on Codfish Island, “The 10 weeks volunteer work that I did on Whenua Hou [Codfish Island] was a very valuable and rewarding experience for me.” He identified a significant number of benefits, and these have been grouped into the following three categories:
Calum was able to experience the reality of working with a small team, in primitive conditions, over a significant period of time. This is an important experience because so much of New Zealand’s conservation work is undertaken in this demanding and physically stressful way. Hence, it was important for Calum to find out early in his degree if this was the career path he wanted to go down. He was able to say.
"I also learned during my time on the island that I could cope with the physical stress and intimate social environment that the island presents without any problems, and even come to appreciate it and miss it."
Furthermore, it helped in his decisions for his future career path. This is important as it allows the students to make wise decisions about future study options. The great news for Calum was that he found that he did enjoy working with endangered species, and he has this to say:
"This work experience has confirmed and reinforced my desire to aim for a career in ecology, as I am passionate about the environment, and consequently understanding and protecting it."
Calum also was able to learn, though hands on experience, about the benefits that nature reserves provide for the endemic New Zealand ecology, stating:
"I have also gained appreciation for the tremendous value that a nature reserve such as Whenua Hou [Codfish Island] has in providing a refuge and context to study a vast array of organisms in a largely unmodified environment."
One of the academic benefits for Calum was that he was able to see how the theory he learned in the class room applied in the “real world.” It is important for students to be able to make this connection, as it demonstrates early in their academic life that what they are learning is relevant and important to their future careers. Calum stated;
"It was refreshing and exciting to get into the field and see in practice some of the theory that I have learned at university…. Seeing first hand the sexual display of the birds and the display territories reinforced and increased what I have learnt in the classroom about the lek breeding system"
Work related skills improvements
Because Calum was engaging in meaningful work that build upon his academic skills, he also learnt a lot of work related skills that by their very nature are difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a formal learning environment. Therefore he gained a great deal of practical knowledge, summed up in the following statement:
"I learnt field skills and data collection methods which are an essential part of research, that complement the scientific design theory that I have learnt at university."
Also any industry has its own nuances and systems of operation. Working for an extended period of time in that industry allows the student to pick up on these ways of operation and to more fully understand that industry. Calum learnt a lot about how the Department of Conservation operates, saying:
"I have gained insight into the logistics of how DOC manages a critically endangered species such as the kakapo."
An essential part of any job is the hands-on skills that grows through experience. For ecologists this includes the ability to handle animals properly and skillfully, to eliminate the risk of injury to the animal, and importantly reduces its stress. Calum was able to learn these skills in handling the kakapo, penguin and titi saying;
"I had the opportunity several times to handle kakapo, and by end of my placement felt very confident and competent in my handling skills. I also got to experience the process of penguin capture and handling, although only once, and could not say that I achieved the same competency….. which gave me the opportunity to experience handling titi and their chicks."
Alongside the handing of animals was the ability to identify animals in the ecosystem. Calum stated “Through my observations on the island and dialogue with other people there, I increased my knowledge of birds dramatically. By the time I left I could confidently identify by sight, and most by ear, the following birds….” Then Calum goes on to list 16 birds. This is a very helpful skill of someone who wants to work in the field of ecology in New Zealand.
Calum was working closely with other research people and teams and was able to learn from world leaders in the field because they were sharing the same accommodation, and working in the same space. He says:
"I also learned about cutting edge research methods as one scientist from America was conducting research on aspects of the diving and migration behavior of the titi using sophisticated data loggers… Getting the chance to see such research occurring first hand and how exciting it is to gain new knowledge about the ecology of a species was very motivating."