I knew that going to university was going to change my life, but what I never considered was how much it was going to be life-changing. That is, I now no longer have enough fingers on both hands to count the number of times that going to UEA influenced my life, while studying and since graduating. That single decision, to accept a conditional offer to study Environmental Sciences, starting September 2001 was the proverbial stone setting off ripples across the pond.
If I skip forward to today, the effect of those ripples have been profound: leading to marriage and two young children, a successful career, networks that stretch across the world and a transferable skillset that keeps me on my toes, continuing to give options going forward. And since my ENV degree led me to do a PGCE Secondary Geography qualification, I’ve been throwing further stones out as a high-school teacher and as head of department. So going to UEA has been my ‘butterfly effect’.
The last few years I’ve been branching out from classroom teaching. My fondness for my time at UEA meant that I’ve felt obliged to give something back, so each year I help out training the Geography PGCE trainees. My involvement varies from year-to-year, but mostly involves delivering a session or two (such as on GIS or assessment for learning), helping with trainee placement visits and evaluations and hosting a trainee at my own school. I’m a firm believer in continuous professional development, especially those which give tangible, useful support and ideas, given that the teaching profession can be unintentionally stifling. I’ve started to generate a presence on a national scale, presenting talks and workshops at conferences and providing support and teaching resources via online networks. I have been able to do these things not just because I have the knowledge (e.g. an Environmental Science degree) and the skills to do so, but because of confidence and drive; two things that I didn’t have before I started my degree. For example, taking a third-year undergraduate course on ‘climatic change’ became synonymous with evaluative, critical, and open-minded thinking (it was also synonymous with the late Professor Keith Briffa’s strong Liverpudian accent; my fellow graduates and I can never say ‘dendrochonology’ without affectionately going Scouse). While I did modules in communication and speaking, it was Professor Briffa who drove into me the desire and passion to be a defender of the scientific process, and to communicate publicly. Combine such academic experiences with braving contributions to open-mics at Luke Wright’s and Aisle16’s ‘Chill ‘em Out Jazz Café’ gave me the fever for public speaking. I’m still symptomatic. My most recent self-initiated challenge is to provide teacher’s CPD in the form of performance poetry.
And for my next adventure: a sabbatical for the 2017-18 academic year. I decided rather than pack in the teaching job I love dearly, I request some leave. I was delighted that this was accepted and immediately set to work using the networks which have their roots during my time at UEA.
First, Carrie. Both she and I were camp counsellors in the summer of 2002 just north of New York City. I came about this job though a flier being shoved under my dorm door in Waveney Terrace. A mutual friend of ours also introduced me to my wife.
Over a decade later, Carrie started working as an outreach affiliate for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) in Boulder, Colorado. Many science students will be familiar with this organisation. They are as big as NASA in the United States, hosting a range of scientists, technicians, engineers etc that are leading the way in global scientific endeavours. Carrie hooked me up with a colleague when I expressed an interest in working at NOAA Boulder for a couple of months. I got the visa and in October of last year, off I went on my first sabbatical adventure. Although I had been out of academia for so long, I found myself quickly absorbed into the cutting-edge research and projects taking place. I participated in a ‘vertical profile’ flight up to 20,000ft to collect air samples for greenhouse gas concentrations and was involved in an ‘AirCore’ mission; launching a weather balloon with a piece of equipment invented by the staff at NOAA Boulder. Although aged, my science degree allowed me to update NOAA’s AirCore web page and give talks about it during public and school tours of the research labs. Not to give up the day job, they certainly put my teaching and public skills to good use, I even got to present talks using the incredible ‘Science on a Sphere’, also invented at NOAA Boulder.
For my second sabbatical experience, was through Kate, a first cousin to my wife. Kate is a project manager for the Environment Group at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. It’s an amazing place; it’s how education should be. Set in one of San Francisco’s piers, it hosts huge galleries of interactive exhibits. Visitors are encouraged to be curious and explore scientific phenomena for themselves. My role was to work with the Environment Group to develop concepts for future exhibits, either physical or digital and help train the Exploratorium’s ‘explainers’ a group of young people, some of high-school age, who facilitate the learning of visitors and school groups by putting on demonstrations and showing them how exhibits work. I also go to work with the amazing Teacher Institute, whose goal is to use the Exploratorium’s resources to put on high quality teacher CPD. The Exploratorium is active in the scientific research domain, too. With strong partnerships with organisations such as NOAA and NASA. I gave public talks, helped out with community events and was a general freelance busy-body.
As far as I am concerned, none of these experiences would have happened if I never set foot on UEA’s concrete campus, and then taken opportunities on a whim. So, if I am to have any words of wisdom for current students, especially those in doing science degrees, it’s to network! Build strong and lasting contacts with your fellow students, with your lecturers and with people in the societies you are a member of. You never know who may come in handy later on down the line. And ensure you are in a position to reciprocate. This can be as simple as putting an ex-fellow undergrad in contact with someone to help them pursue an interest or career, to as far as forming a partnership or collaboration.
Please do check out my sabbatical blog at www.geogramblings.com. The posts go into much more detail about my experiences. It serves as more testimony to the affectionate legacy the UEA has left me.