MIS:TIQUE – The Preview

Triassic wadi margin

I bring you a preview of my latest project – MIS:TIQUE – Mobility Impaired Students : Teaching In Quite Unsuitable Environments. Universities in the UK quite rightly have been improving teaching and learning for students with disabilities. Most of the work has concentrated on topics like dyslexia and learning disabilities but little work has been done for mobility impaired students beyond installing ramps and lifts. The building I work in now has expensive lifts to all parts except the one corridor that can’t be reached on the flat. However, geology has an almost unique issue for mobility impaired students, fieldwork.

I have noticed a dramatic increase in mobility impaired students over the last ten years. When I took my geology degree over twenty-five years ago geology was considered to be (although not exclusively) something of a ‘macho’ subject. Most of us who took the subject were ‘outdoor’ types into walking, climbing, caving, etc. and most of us wanted to be vocational geologists. Today it is a very different landscape. Geology is no longer (I hope) a macho subject. Indeed, now the majority of our students are female (Note that I’m not saying that females are immobile in the field, just that the type of geology graduate has changed dramatically). Students chose geology as they would any other degree subject and many are unused to the great outdoors. Students with disabilities are rightly encouraged in taking degrees (which is good), I encounter more students with asthma who have problems walking in hilly terrains (which is unfortunate), and more students are simply unfit and/or obese (which is not good).

For other subjects, such as geography for example, I would argue that it is easier to reorganise a field course to suit disability impaired students. However, in geology where the important exposures are typically at the far end of a rocky beach, on the end of a peninsula or up a mountain it is extremely difficult to run a field course without degrading the experience for the vast majority of able-bodied students and/or incurring great additional costs.

Under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) we are required to ‘make reasonable adjustment’ or provide an ‘equivalent educational experience’. What this might be is a moot point if ever there was one. There are many who would argue (myself included) that geological field work is integral to a geology degree, it being the part where we can bring together all the threads of geology and start to make the subject make sense to the student.

One potential solution is for the mobility impaired student to guide a person with a video camera over a two-way connection to examine the particular features. In the places we visit this would almost certainly necessitate satellite communication and would be prohibitively expensive and a logistic nightmare.

The way we teach students to undertake field geology is first to stand back from the outcrop and (after making a hazard assessment) try to work out what is going on. From their initial observations they can erect some hypothesis regarding what might be going on and devise some ways in which they might be tested. They then move in to the exposure, make some detailed observations around the outcrop, and test the hypotheses they have come up with. They then move back to the initial point for a revised overview based on the detailed observations they have made, returning to the exposure if necessary.

The idea of the MIS:TIQUE project is to try to mimic this process using gigapan technology and back this up with other web based learning materials. Using gigapan, we can start with an overview, move in for detail, pan around the exposure and then zoom back out for the revised overview.

As I run a first year geology field course to Pembrokeshire in South Wales I have been back there last week with a few of my geology colleagues to shoot some gigapans and devise some virtual field exercises which, whilst can in no way replace the field experience of able-bodied students, might at least go some way towards reasonable adjustment for the mobility impaired.

As a taster, we stopped off on the way to Pembrokeshire to visit Ogmore-by-Sea, near Bridgend in South Wales to look at the Lower Carboniferous Limestone which is cut by Triassic Wadis in-filled with limestone breccias. A close-up picture of the wadi margin is shown above and the gigapan can be seen here (wordpress.com doesn’t seem to allow gigapan embedding).

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