Blogging assignments – comments and experiences part 2: BSc Honors Projects

One of the challenges with undergraduate projects is to give the student experience of publishing their work.  Sometimes a project fits part of a larger research area and the student gets co authorship of a paper.  Three years ago one of my tutees gained from this by working with Liam McGuffin on the modelling of protein folding patterns and became co author on three papers (Roche et al 2010; Roche et al. 2011a; Roche et al. 2011b).  However this is unusual and the student often has only a limited role in the writing of the paper but gains experience of teamwork in research.

The innovative journal Bioscience Horizons was launched to give a forum for student projects in the broad area of biological sciences.   I had first hand experience of a project student publishing their work in the journal when Robyn Drinkwater published her project on a digital key to Drosera.  The process was a great learning experience for her but this happened after her project was completed and after she had graduated so the learning experience applied to her subsequent jobs rather than helping develop her degree.  It was also a fair amount of work for me to help her convert her project into the right scientific style.

Blogging, while not offering the same degree of formal writing experience as a journal article, does offer a more immediate opportunity to develop written style and gain experience of opening your ideas to a public audience.  My aim in the introduction of blogging to student project activity was to provide students with:

  1. Formative feedback on written style
  2. Opportunity to develop their digital presence to aid in employment
  3. Experience of opening their ideas, thoughts and knowledge to a worldwide audience
  4. Opportunity for peer learning through reading each others work

Ancillary to this were opportunities for me to:

  1. Provide a greater online teaching resource on biodiversity
  2. Increase publicity for our learning and teaching activities
  3. Engage students from different cohorts with each other
  4. Generate biodiversity records for use in future research projects

Over the past academic year a team of five undergraduate students have been using the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog to develop their own blogging skills and to conduct research on what makes a successful blog post. Biodiversity recording on campus has expanded since the launch of the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog two years ago so this readily available forum was an obvious place for student project work.

Training this student group in blogging was fairly easy, all picked up basic use of the editor in Word Press in just a few minutes.  Use of media was a little more challenging, especially working out what formats could be embedded using the upload media button.  This needed more training and practice.  Alongside this practical training was essential training in copyright and available resources to avoid use of unapproved material on the web.  Emily Goodhand was kind enough to provide a training session for the students in how to avoid falling foul of copyright law.

Thomas Whitlock checking the blogging style survey results on Bristol Online Surveys

Thomas Whitlock checking the blogging style survey results on Bristol Online Surveys

The most prolific student author, Thomas Whitlock,  from the group, generated over 60 posts on his local bird survey work and recently reflected on the learning experience of writing these in a short Digitally Ready post.  In contrast to the reader friendly subject of birds, Torin Clarke decided to take the challenge of reporting on campus spiders in a clever series of focused blogs written under the name Top Cat.  His reflections on the learning value of blogs can be seen here.  In contrast with these two blogs, the work Conor Haugh conducted was to experiment with readily available technology to try to develop interactive campus maps to list wildlife in different areas of campus.   This proved a challenge at some levels although the base map and area lists are now functional and Conor gained a range of skills in developing his blog pages as he reports.  As well as a campus map Conor set up and linked a Whiteknights Biodiversity Facebook page to the blog to post all new entries as they are published.  These three, along with two others, conducted surveys on preferences for written style in blogging, use of images and other factors that might influence a reader’s preference.  More on those results another day.

Looking back on the experience of working with this small group of students and their blogs I think that I gained from having such an enthusiastic and engaged group who were willing to try new things.  All of them seem to have gained novel skills and experience and all have gained some professional web presence to enhance their CV.  I have a new batch of blog based projects just starting and hope the class of 2013/14 will be as engaged and hardworking as the class of 2012/13.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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