Conservation through British high schools

Hippocampus hippocampus (Short-snouted seahorse). Photo by Gino Meskens/Guylian SOTW

Hippocampus hippocampus (Short-snouted seahorse). Photo by Gino Meskens/Guylian SOTW

By Owen Raffan

Having come from Britain, after finishing my A levels, I’ve started volunteering with Project Seahorse. Whilst here, I’ve learnt a lot of cool new things. Native species and ecosystems are fantastic. They provide shelter, an income and sustenance for humans. Despite this, we are doing a lot to harm our habitats. Did you know, for every kilogram of shrimp caught by trawlers, 10 kg of other marine life is caught and turned into fishmeal or dumped overboard, dead or dying? I certainly didn’t! Unsustainable methods of fishing, farming and poaching are causing native species all around the world to be decimated. Experts estimate the loss of species we are seeing today is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. It is clear that this trend is not sustainable. For this reason, conservation of our natural habitats is crucial.

Despite the importance of biodiversity conservation, Project Seahorse has made me realize how little I had learned about it in high school. There is almost no material in the GCSE (taken between the ages of 15 and 16) specification. At A level Biology (taken at 17 and 18, similar to the high school diploma) there are a number of pages on conservation, however it is almost never tested. There have only been 4 questions relating to how conservation works and its benefits across two of the biggest exam boards (AQA and OCR) since 2010. This is a challenge for conservation, as it means the students rarely engage with the topic and subsequently don’t view it as a potential career path or as a global problem that urgently needs to be addressed. I found that I could recall very little looking back to my school days because I wasn’t properly engaged with conservation The first time students are properly educated on the topic is in university. At this point it is too late as relatively few people will be taking the course. 

So what can be done to address this education gap? If more work on conservation was done in schools, you may get a greater interest in the subject; making it more likely people follow it as a career. Students should be taught not only what conservation is, but the benefits and its importance. To engage students, the syllabus should include case studies of current projects which could be followed up with field trips. Personally, I would have found conservation more interesting and memorable if I’d been able to get my hands dirty in a tidal pool or listened to a talk. This hands on approach would further their understanding by showing them how conservation is being implemented. Another key goal should be to aim to make students proactive. This could be done by assigning classes a nearby section of coastline or national park and sending them regular updates or encouraging them to write to government ministers at strategic and appropriate times.

Furthermore, in order for conservation to be successful, the key is public awareness. Many species and ecosystems are being destroyed for commercial value, whether that’s culling trees to make way for crops or killing fish for food. These practices aren’t necessarily detrimental but most methods are unsustainable. Billions of people’s livelihoods are directly impacted by the destruction of ecological habitats. Therefore the public need to be well-informed about how their everyday choices affect their environment and how to make them more sustainable. There are also a lot of little things (e.g. buying only sustainably-sourced shrimp and seafood) that can make a big difference.  Knowledge of conservation has many other benefits, like allowing scientists to quickly collect large amounts of data using public outreach programs and citizen science, such as Project Seahorse’s website iSeahorse.org. Generally, the more people know about conservation, the easier it is for it to be a success.

So how can public awareness be increased? One of the best ways to get key information out to people is through social media. Innovative conservation organizations are now using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to let people know about their important work. I’m finding my work in social media for Project Seahorse is making marine conservation seem interesting and potentially a future career path. Keeping websites up to date and blogging regularly are both great ways to get people energized and informed. Governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) being available to the public is key for outreach to work. Useful ways to do this are regional experts giving talks, producing news articles, television shows and podcasts. Whatever method used, it is key that it reaches the maximum number of people. 

To conclude, I’ve learnt a lot through Project Seahorse, I’ve seen the engaging side of marine conservation. I’ll be considering it as a career path now that I know conservation is a vital topic that is more relevant now than it has ever been. Despite this, it is not being taught, in British high schools, extensively enough prior to university. To better protect our planet, we need to work on informing people about conservation both through citizen science and education.

(views are my own)