School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

TrainME2 Summer school participants gain experience in extracting swamp sediments at the Twinstreams environmental camp and in gravity coring on the uMlalazi Estuary, and pay a visit to the West Coast Fossil Park.

Summer School Trains Students in Applied Earth and Aquatic Sciences

Click here for isiZulu version

Dr Jemma Finch from UKZN’s Discipline of Geography, together with colleagues from UKZN, the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa’s Council for Geoscience (CGS) and the University of Greifswald in Germany hosted a week-long field summer school for geoscience students from across Africa to provide training in bio- and geo-scientific fieldwork sampling in terrestrial and aquatic environments.

The Training School on Methods in Applied Earth and Aquatic Sciences (Train-ME2 CONNECT) took place in Germany in September 2021 and in South Africa in November 2021. While it was initially envisaged that it would be run contemporaneously with daily virtual connections between the two countries, the South African leg was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second time this summer school has taken place; first hosted in 2019, it arose from collaborations between academics in Germany that are part of the Tracing Human and Climate Impacts in South Africa (TRACES) project and the Science Partnerships for the Adaptation to Complex Earth System Processes in the Southern Africa (SPACES) research network.

Funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the summer school provided training in measurement techniques of physical and chemical parameters, sampling of plankton and benthos, sampling of sediment surface, coring techniques to recover long and continuous sediment sequences on land, and palaeolimnological evaluation methods. It incorporated e-learning components and promoted cultural exchange.

Headed by Dr Finn Viehberg and Professor Torsten Haberzettl at the University of Greifswald and Finch at UKZN, the programme previously involved European and southern African students visiting South Africa, evolving into a parallel exercise in Germany and South Africa due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In South Africa, eight PhD and master’s candidates from various institutions were selected from 130 applications, with the final participants hailing from Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

The programme began on the east coast of South Africa at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa’s Twinstreams environmental education centre and forest camp in Mtunzini, where Finch, postdoctoral researcher from UKZN Dr Lauren Pretorius, Dr Kelly Kirsten from the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr Hayley Cawthra from the CGS and Viehberg taught various methods based on their specialisations during field laboratory exercises, including conducting gravity coring in the uMlalazi Estuary.

The group also visited the Sibudu Cave archaeological site, guided by Dr Gavin Whitelaw from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum.

Moving on to South Africa’s west coast, participants visited the Langebaan area. Working in the Berg River Estuary to obtain samples and cores, they recorded and mapped their data, comparing the east and west coast environments. To close off the trip, they visited the West Coast Fossil Park and the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre.

‘Our research examines environmental and climate change, but human context goes along with that,’ said Finch of the importance of the cultural visits.

The week’s activities involved workshop sessions with the German summer school participants, with the students tasked to develop material for an educational comic and worksheet – now in development – that is aimed at high school learners to enhance their engagement with science. They also produced video material and shared their experiences on Twitter and Instagram.

Finch praised the students for their hard work, saying they asked insightful questions and shared their knowledge while developing confidence in their own expertise and problem-solving skills.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Hayley Cawthra and supplied