How a group of Dal educators has transformed the outdoors into a classroom

Biodiversity Working Group receives teaching award for innovation

- December 7, 2022

L-R: Dr. Gabrielle Tompkins, Dr. Heather Cray, Dr. Amy Mui, Lara Gibson, Dr. Susan Gass, Dr. Paul Manning at the 2022 Dalhousie Legacy Awards. (Danny Abriel photo)
L-R: Dr. Gabrielle Tompkins, Dr. Heather Cray, Dr. Amy Mui, Lara Gibson, Dr. Susan Gass, Dr. Paul Manning at the 2022 Dalhousie Legacy Awards. (Danny Abriel photo)

Wild berries, native Nova Scotian plants and salamanders. If your first thought was a provincial park, you wouldn’t be wrong. But did you consider Dal campus? 

A group of educators from across Dal working under the banner of the Biodiversity Working Group has created a unique approach to helping students appreciate the richness of nature close at hand. 

Using a unique blend of technology and nature, they’ve been able to offer an unparalleled level of learning to students on Dal campuses in Halifax and Truro. And this year, they have been recognized for this work as recipients of the Academic Innovation Award — part of Dal’s annual University-wide Teaching Awards (formally presented each year at the university's Legacy Awards ceremony).

Made up of faculty members from the Departments of Biology, Earth & Environmental Sciences, and Plant, Food, & Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Agriculture, the group organizes an annual event known as Dal Biodiversity Day — held each September — where students and experts come together for a day of exploration around the campuses in search of both animal and plant life that has called home on campus.

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The world around us that we miss out on

Using the community-driven biodiversity app iNaturalist, first- and second-year students in science classes are led by experts on walks around campus in search of the various species that are our fellow campus residents. As University Teaching Fellow Lara Gibson explains, students have also benefited from the contributions of experts from organizations such as the Natural History Museum, the Nova Scotia Bird Society, and many others. 

Dr. Paul Manning is a huge proponent of iNaturalist, highlighting its many uses and how it can propel students into the world of biodiversity. With more than nine million observations in Canada alone, the app allows students to explore nature through crowdsourced data from coast to coast while interacting with likeminded individuals. 

“It’s an amazing tool for education because of its wide range of applications from research to teaching,” says Dr. Manning.

Whether down by Salmon River in Truro or at the Indigenous Pollinator Garden by the Henry Hicks Building, the group stresses that a large amount of biodiversity is around us to learn about. Dr. Susan Gass reflects on how she herself has learned so much through the project, given that the project covers natural life beyond her area of expertise. “Considering the wide range of areas of expertise in our inter-disciplinary team, individually we’re still learning alongside the students about everything around us,” Dr. Gass said. 

When asked about what there was for students to see on campus, the group jointly pointed out that areas of green on both campuses are home to lots of native plants and interesting insects. 

“This is why we do what we do, so we can help people see our everyday space through new eyes and appreciate that life is all around us.”

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Biodiversity and urbanisation: What’s next?

Longer term, the group hopes to spur wider interest among students in the field of “urban biodiversity.” 

Often overlooked, Dr. Gass says she hopes the project’s focus on urban ecosystems will encourage students to think more deeply about what they can do to enhance biodiversity around campus and how they can care for the space they share with the diverse natural life around us. 

Gibson further elaborates on how the group hopes to further develop their capability to help students better engage with biodiversity. 

“We know students are becoming increasingly interested in these topics, so we need to start exploring how we can help students make connections that will allow them to take the next steps in this field.”


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