One of the most important skill sets for a scientist to possess is the ability to work with large amounts of data in a variety of formats. These skills range from simple data management, through analysis techniques and statistics, to the interpretation and reporting of final results. These represent many of the core abilities needed for a successful career in research, and in higher education throughout the broad field of science. However, these are notoriously difficult skills to teach at school level without access to a large enough range of suitable and, importantly, interesting data sets.
Similarly, although a small proportion of 16-18 year olds studying biology, environmental science and geography are lucky enough to visit the tropics and even partake in ecology and conservation focused volunteering projects, the majority to not have this opportunity. This restricts the exposure of students to some of the most biodiverse, productive, and ultimately threatened ecosystems on the planet, which can lead to a significant lack of awareness and understanding of some of the most important and fascinating processes taking place on Earth.
With these issues in mind, the Opwall Trust has been developing the Wallace Resource Library (WRL) since 2011. This project aimed to bring the tropical conservation experience into the classroom, to greatly increase the awareness of global conservation issues and solutions amongst young people in the UK, while simultaneously providing much needed resources for teachers to improve the extent to which data handling skills are taught in schools. Important development funding was provided by the Garfield Weston Foundation in 2012, and this was used to design a suitable package for real life data sets donated by Operation Wallacea scientists.
After initial consultation with teachers from across the UK, teaching in both state and private schools using a range of exam boards and syllabi, a suitable format for teaching resources was designed. Two sets of resources were decided upon: (1) lectures in specific key topics written by university academics using specific field sites from around the world as case studies, and (2) real life data sets packaged by experts in field research designed to be used as lesson plans, coursework, exam revision, and data analysis skill development. The WRL 2013 was subsequently launched in October 2012, and has since then has been provided free-of charge alongside face to face tutorials to approximately 1000 schools from around the world. As a result, the WRL is now being used in schools from countries including the UK, US, Canada, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Poland.
In November 2013, a new and updated WRL 2014 was launched complete with additional data sets and an impressive new interface that greatly improves the appearance and usability of the resource. As well as ten lectures on carefully chosen components of tropical field ecology, the WRL 2014 consists of 19 fully packaged data sets in five core modules identified as being of most relevance to key curricula for 16-18 year olds. These modules are (1) Ecosystems: Coral Reefs, (2) Survey Techniques, (3) Animal Behaviour, (4) Ecosystems: Tropical Rainforests, and (5) Natural Resource Use and Sustainability. Specific data sets include dominance hierarchies in South African bull elephants, population estimations in Honduran boa constrictors, and temperature tolerances of Indonesian lionfish. Each data set was packaged in an identical format, including background reading, research questions, links to each exam board’s syllabus, instructions, data (raw, partially completed and full analysed versions), and a set of associated resources such as scientist profile, glossary of terms, associated photographs and site descriptions, aimed at engaging students both with the topic and with field biology as a potential career route.
Another important development carried out as part of the WRL 2014 version was the creation of a website where example data sets can be found (www.wallaceresourcelibrary.com). This demo version contains one full data set from each of the five modules, along with all ten lectures, and allows teachers to experience the benefits of the WRL before they request a face to face tutorial and a copy of the full WRL 2014 version.
The Wallace Resource Library is an ongoing project with improved and updated versions planned annually. The most recent information can be found here, or by visiting the WRL website itself.