Oxford Professor’s Wild Educational Experiment Ignites Conservation in Southeast Asia
Environmental science, cutting-edge educational research and fascinating games combine to create a groudbreaking course improving the capacity of Southeast Asian countries to safeguard their disappearing wildlife. Photo Credit: Keven Law via Wikipedia Commons
A mystery is afoot – someone’s killed the endangered Malayan tiger! The trail is hot, the tiger’s blood is still cooling, and a crack team of Malaysian environmentalists have just 13 days to solve this case of cold-blooded murder.
It may sound like the plot for a Saturday night TV movie, but it’s actually the basis for a successful environmental education course that effectively equips conservation professionals and environmental enthusiasts to handle their country’s all-too-real environmental challenges.
Devised and directed by University of Oxford professor and environmental scientist Cedric Tan, ‘Wildlife Conservation Course 2016’ will use puzzles and team challenges to throw subjects into educational scenarios that engage the mind and expand conservation skills.
Coming up in January 2016, the “murder mystery” is actually the second course of its kind.
“Last year’s event was a big success,” Tan said. “Contestants went away excited and impressed, students bonded, and we built capacity among those working in GO and NGO organizations to protect wildlife and the environment.”
The 2015 course was themed around gaming and reality TV – participants competed in scientific and ecological challenges for cards that would give them a better chance in a final battle against a tough opponent. This year’s challenge is a bit different. With each game, contestants will be earning clues to help them solve a tiger murder that could be due to one of a number of real-world causes of species extinction (poaching, habitat destruction, lack of genetic diversity, etc).
The “games” played are actually complicated environmental challenges. In interview with Clean Malaysia, Tan gave the example of a ‘conservation genetics casino.’ In this game, the five colors of chips would represent different physical genetic characteristics in a population of animals. Green might mean resistance to disease, blue might mean adaptability to climate-change induced weather patterns, and so on. Contestants would have to bet, borrow and steal to give their population the most diverse set of genes possible – exactly what a real population of animals would need in order to survive in the shrinking forest reserves across Southeast Asia. Spanning 13 days, the course will include a wide variety of games that work together to create a body of knowledge preparing contestants to look at conservation from the all-important big picture perspective.
Beyond functioning as teaching tools, these games are also educational experiments. Tan will record challenges on video, group students into teams optimized for success based on their personality types, observe the details of interaction and effectiveness of the course and bring the findings back to the University of Oxford to further research aimed at creating education that truly inspires.
“We record students’ perception of the lessons, learning effectiveness via quizzes before and after each lesson, and student behaviors such as asking questions, bored behavior, and joyful (laughing, cheering) behavior,” Tan said. “We also keep track of bigger-picture impacts like long-term student recall of content and how the course has changed students.”
Tan’s research is based on the integration of psychology, arts and social sciences, but his heart is with environmentalism and species conservation. His research and courses are thus providing an invaluable service to Malaysia, a country exceptionally rich in species diversity but struggling with environmental degradation at every turn. Malaysia – and all of Southeast Asia – needs more citizens and professionals engaged with conservation.
Tan is setting out to inspire people who will do just that. His classes are full of individuals on the frontlines of conservation in Malaysia and neighboring countries. Last year’s course harbored members of Perhilitan, the branch of Malaysian government dedicated to wildlife conservation. Perhilitan often cooperates with police and other authorities, but it struggles with corruption and doesn’t have the capacity to keep up with deforestation and illegal poaching. Also present last year were members of MYCAT, an NGO providing critical protection to the Malayan tiger by guarding a forest corridor the animals use to pass between two tracts of forest. The corridor is a hotspot for poaching, and MYCAT boots hunters out and disarms snare traps constantly.
In order to save its beautiful environment and achieve economic sustainability, Malaysia must redirect its course from industry-driven and environmentally destructive expansion to a long-term vision that allows for harmony between nature, society and economy. Tan’s courses work towards this goal, helping equip conservation organizations to protect the environment while inspiring more people to join and support them.
Through teaching, research and study, Tan is questing to find out “Whether experiential gaming is an approach towards effective outreach and education – one that not only serves to teach, but to inspire, bond participants and create behavior that will benefit nature and humans.”
A Note from Cedric:
Though the deadline is closed, we have opened up several places for late minute applicants. Course fees are 410RM and accommodation fees (optional) 600RM. If you are keen on joining and have an interest in conservation and/or in the field of policy, we welcome you to apply by sending a one-page CV and one-page PS to firstname.lastname@example.org.