PIs PIs baby! Stop, collaborate and listen: improving students’ communication skills through an interdisciplinary engineering-zoology project

 Dr Joanna Bagniewska (@JMBagniewska), Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading describes an interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching approach.

Teamwork, problem solving and communication regularly top the lists of skills that employers look for in graduates, regardless of degree (e.g. European Commission, 2010). Here we present a case study of how Part 2 Zoology, Ecology and Biomedical Engineering students from the University of Reading ran an interdisciplinary, highly collaborative fieldwork project – and what they thought about it.

We combined the practical sessions of two modules – Practical Animal Behaviour (for zoologists/ecologists) and Systems Design and Project Management (for engineers). We tasked the students to work on a large-scale field experiment in 17 interdisciplinary teams, consisting of one engineer and 2-3 zoologists. The students worked together to build their own camera traps using Raspberry Pi computers, and deploy them around campus to investigate bird behaviour in relation to predator presence and orientation.

Camera traps
Camera trap in action capturing a robin feeding, despite the presence of the ‘predator’

Pre-practical preparations

Before the practical sessions, we ran a team-based learning exercise. For this, students were asked to read two scientific articles about camera traps; one written from an engineering perspective, and the other one from a zoological perspective. In class, they answered a short multiple-choice quiz based on the articles. First, the quiz was solved individually (the answers were not revealed), and then in the assigned teams. The answers to the team quiz were marked on a scratch card, revealing solutions immediately. This activity not only showed the benefit of working in an interdisciplinary team (with most students receiving higher marks in the team quiz), but, as the teams were formed by tutors, also acted as an ice-breaker.

During the introductory session, the teams created a light-touch project initiation document, which allowed both sides to establish the priorities and realities of constructing a wildlife camera.

Experimental setup

To examine how birds behave in the presence of predators, the students used predator-proxies: toy cats (using methodology modified from a study of titmice, Book and Freeberg, 2015). As well as constructing simple camera traps, all teams assembled bird feeders, which were placed across the university campus. Each team ran at least three recording sessions – one with the toy cat facing the feeder, one with the cat facing away, and one with a toy hedgehog acting as a control. All of the sessions were preceded by a baseline recording with no toy on the feeder. Throughout the practical sessions, the zoologists were responsible for preliminary site reconnaissance, pre-baiting, camera trap deployment, data collection and analysis. The engineers developed the trap, ensured the equipment worked and data were usable and accessible.

Camera trap set up
Camera trap set-up

After the shared practical sessions, the two modules were split again. The zoologists examined the footage, identified and recorded bird behaviours, and collated data from all teams to write a scientific report. The engineers developed the camera traps further to include motion sensors, and constructed improved, robotic cats with twitching tails (see video). Despite challenges such as programming difficulties, equipment failures and session cancellations due to snow, most teams obtained usable, good quality wildlife footage.

Student impressions

We conducted before-and-after surveys of students’ perceptions of interdisciplinary work. The aspect that students from both modules were looking forward to the most was constructing the equipment; the engineers also mentioned teamwork and learning about another discipline/perspective, while the zoologists looked forward to applying knowledge in practice and exploring camera trap methodology.

In terms of perceived challenges, prior to the practical, students from both modules were mostly concerned about communication/teamwork and constructing the equipment. While both module groups did indeed find communication and teamwork to be a major challenge, engineers also struggled with organisation and timekeeping, and zoologists with technology and programming.

Both groups identified teamwork and learning about a new discipline as the most valuable aspects of the practical. Additionally, engineers listed improving communication skills, and zoologists – using new technologies.

Overall, students greatly valued the opportunity to work collaboratively, as it allowed them to experience a “real-world” work environment.

Building on the successes and lessons learnt from this initial running of combined module teaching we are planning to run it again for the 2019-2020 academic year.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge my Biomedical Engineering colleagues (Rachel McCrindle, Simon Sherratt, Balazs Janko and Ross Wilson) who ran this project with me, Sarah Needs for help with practical sessions, and Phil Baker for assistance and support throughout the module.

References

Book, D. L., & Freeberg, T. M (2015). Titmouse calling and foraging are affected by head and body orientation of cat predator models and possible experience with real cats. Animal cognition, 18(5), 1155-1164.

European Commission (2010). Employers’ perception of graduate employability, Flash EB Series No 304. Hungary: The Gallup Organization.

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