A total of 137 honours students attended two weekend-long camps organised at the Umlalazi Nature Reserve in Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast by UKZN’s School of Life Sciences.
The camp tradition began about four years ago involving Marine Biology, Forensics and Biology students, and then from last year included all Life Sciences honours students from Westville and Pietermaritzburg campuses.
The camps were established in response to recognition by staff of the lack of soft skills training in honours students entering their courses, particularly in time management, goal setting and planning for life after their studies.
To meet the challenge of teaching these skills, camp activities were designed to give students very intensive training in the areas, and to help them with other skills such as presenting team work, getting to know fellow members through increasing collegiality, so that students feel they have the option to speak to people if they need help. Students also gain experience in presentation skills, concept mapping, communication and skills transfer.
Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson of the Marine Biology, Aquaculture, Conservation Education and Ecophysiology (MACE) laboratory at UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, together with Chrysalis Training and Skills Development, facilitated the exercises. Also involved were peer-to-peer skills transfer with students from Bhejane Nature Training, guiding and helping reconnect them with nature.
Robertson-Andersson noted that this approach enabled UKZN students to see book learning in practice, and the Bhejane students to learn theory, for example when a guide points out a plant and its scientific name and a UKZN student discusses plant alkaloids and strychnine. The process allows the students to see the differences between practical and book knowledge and aids learning.
‘The camp setting is designed to facilitate discomfort learning and there are other activities to showcase challenges that the students will incur during their honours year, providing tools to assist them,’ said Robertson-Andersson.
Students overcame challenging weather conditions including tropical storms, intense heat and humidity, as well as resultant power outages, but responded enthusiastically despite the conditions. Many said they encountered brand new concepts, and for some it was their first camping experience.
Students also commented on the memories made and the local knowledge they acquired. Highlights included stargazing, day walks, soft skills training, a lecture from Robertson-Andersson and group work that facilitated bonding between students.
‘The camp had an incredible impact on my view of the honours course in biology because I was able to see the scope of the course, ask questions, and socialise with supervisors and classmates,’ said a student. ‘My view of biology was expanded greatly by the setting in which the camp took place.’
Students were unanimous that the camps were excellent preparation to help them to cope with the demands of the year ahead.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Bheki Mthembu