“There isn’t anything else quite like it”: We’ve deconstructed what makes Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction so good

Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction and Palaeoecology reads like a mouthful, but Dr Janelle Stevenson knows that for Undergraduates and Masters students at ANU, it’s a type of scientific, social and geographic study that’s coming back into popularity. Not just for Environmental Science students either: the Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction course at The Fenner School routinely attracts students from Biology, Engineering, Chemistry, Archaeology, and Arts. So why has a niche skill set with such a long name become so interesting to students? We decided to find out. 


It’s time travel

Course convenor and lecturer Dr Stevenson says it has to do with how science can piece together the past to support cultural history and truth telling.

“We're all about time.” explains Dr Stevenson.“As the name kind of suggests, it's all about reconstructing (in the academic and laboratory sense) landscapes or environments of the past.” 

“Whereas a lot of Fenner courses deal with the spatial variability of landscapes, we look at how they have changed through time, in line with some of the big global shifts in climate such as the ice ages, to the more recent change such as those brought about by the invasion of this continent by European settlers. Our teaching nearly always reflects where we are in our research interests, and currently it is about greater recognition of Australia (and other parts of the globe) as a cultural landscape and how even the study of palaeoecology can contribute to social justice.” Dr Stevenson adds.

It’s unique

Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction (ENVS3029) was first offered decades ago in the ANU School of Geography, which later became the Fenner School with the merging of several other Schools and Centres. The academic lead back when the course was set up was Emeritus Professor Geoff Hope, who sadly passed away at the close of 2021. His legacy, however, remains.

“Geoff moved from Geography (in the then Faculties) across campus to Biogeography and Geomorphology that sat within the Institutes of Advanced Studies. The Institutes were 'research only' (no pesky undergrads) and so Geoff, who loved teaching, kept Palaeo on the books in Geography and continued to teach across campus.” Dr Stevenson explains. While the course is now housed with Archaeology and Natural History staff at the School of Culture, History and Language, the subject is still taught through The Fenner School.

“We continue to offer and teach the course as there isn't anything else quite like it.” says Dr Stevenson.


It’s multidisciplinary

While the subject includes analysing pollen and charcoal samples and wading through bogs, Dr Stevenson began to notice that even though scientific reporting is inherently visual, and video and film are hugely popular, experts spend a lot of time turning what they see into text.

“Video is increasingly becoming the communication tool of choice, particularly when it comes to engaging with the broader community. It's also being used more in reporting agencies and even in grant applications. These days 'Expressions of Interest' to funding bodies can request a video submission.”

She decided to culminate the course through a short film assignment. The assignment encouraged students to communicate key ideas from their semester in interesting ways to a general audience, developing the technical filming and content development skills that social media asks us to have already.

“We gave the students a pretty blank slate and said "be creative". Their creativity just blew us away.” says course course co-convenor Dr Simon Connor. “As just one example, Kitchen Ecology was such an effective, engaging and creative way of explaining concepts about past environments. It takes courage to do something like that.”

At the end of course Dr Stevenson, Dr Connor, and tutor Vicki Miller hosted a screening of the 2021 class's assignments.


It’s a film festival

So before enrollments close for the 2022 Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction intake, we’re bringing you the best films of the night for 2021, starting with Dr Connor’s favourite.

Kitchen Ecology - by Jamica Kwani and Guy Gould

For Guy Gould, Palaeoecology was the final subject of his Bachelor of Arts in 2021. ”I had learned some info about paleoecology from previous Fenner classes, and I wanted more. I think it's super interesting and cool that we can infer so much about past landscapes and environments from a tiny grain of pollen, or a small charcoal chunk, or a bubble in an ice core. It was my second favourite class, following Fire in the Environment (sorry Janelle and Simon, fire is just too much fun).”

Jamica Kwani also recently graduated with a Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability and a Bachelor of Arts. “I majored in Environmental Science and Development Studies respectively. I was drawn to this class initially through an interest in paleoclimatology (the study of climate through geological time) that was sparked by ENVS3013 Climate Change: Past, Present and Future. I knew this course covered slightly different topics, but my interest in fieldwork, climate/environmental change, and Indigenous cultural land management made this course a perfect way to tie everything together.”

In making their film, Jamica explains, “We wanted to create something simple, fun, and engaging. We aimed to focus on one specific topic so that we could go further in depth.” Guy adds, “Jamica suggested a cake baking video as a joke, and I loved the idea. We both brought our skills to the table; my baking, Jam's editing, and the excellent knowledge imparted on us through the term by Janelle, Simon, Vicki, and all the guest lecturers. We didn't want to be boring (ironically baking a vanilla cake), and I think we achieved that. Definitely ended my degree with a bang!”


Swamp People - by Jemma Jeffree and Ruby Turner

Jemma Jefree is studying a Bachelor of Philosophy (Science), which, Jemma explains, “is basically a Bachelor of Science with an added research component. I discovered climatology in second year and took to it immediately. Studying Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction was a part of exploring this space fully.”

When it came to the assignment, “Honestly, my approach to the assignment was, "Oh dear, one of those creative things. How can I do the least work possible and still have it classed as creative?" I thought simple sketches with coloured pencils would remove the need for interesting video. I did enjoy making it in the end, though”.


A Little Bit of Dirt - by Catherine Smith, Georgia Whitaker, and Emma Fitzgerald 

Catherine Smith recently completed a Bachelor of Science, and Georgia Whitaker has recently completed her final semester of a Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability, majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in Geography and Climate Science.

“Often, we have found ourselves running into an old friend and getting asked the usual "What have you been up to?" question. We wanted to approach this assignment from the perspective of our peers and environmental science students in general. So, in the form of a 'real life' conversation, we tried to explain how interesting palaeoecology is to someone with little knowledge or interest in it.” Says Catherine.

Georgia details, “We all became really close friends during this course and we just wanted to have fun with the project so we broke it up into small parts and everyone got to do the bit they enjoyed most. I analysed the data which Emma used to write up a script and then we filmed it and Catherine put it all together in the video. Working on this video was probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing an assignment and would 10/10 recommend this course to anyone interested in palaeoecology.”


It’s full of highlights

The many places and ways that the course is taught over the semester means the list of highlights from students is a romp. 

For Jemma Jefree, The highlight of ENVS3029 was Dr Connor’s whacky edu-games. “He had all these interactive activities at the start of labs to illustrate concepts, like throwing ping-pong ball 'pollen' at velcro grass pistils or moving the pollen with crochet bees to illustrate that more wind-dispersed pollen is needed to get the same amount to another flower.”

Meanwhile, Catherine Smith loved being “Knees deep in a bog. We collected sediment cores and took them back to the lab to determine how the landscape had changed overtime.” in Namadgi National Park. While swamp water in your shoes and Dr Connor’s slightly chaotic energy were memorable for Jamica Kwani, above all else she loved the scope of assessments. “The assessment structure allows you to focus on what you’re interested in, which is really supportive of different learning types and knowledge backgrounds.”

For Georgia Whitaker, it was end of semester video premiere night all the way. “We all got together in the Forestry Lecture Theatre to watch each other’s videos with snacks and drinks. It was so cool to see all the different takes on how to present the data and we even got to vote for our favourite ones and the convenors handed out a people’s choice award at the end!”

“Personally I am delighted that students felt safe to take those risks in this course. It's truly heartwarming stuff.” Says Dr Connor.


It’s on again in 2022 and 2023

In 2022 The Fenner School is launching a video editing studio - so students will have access to a suite for their projects thanks to Education Manager Fred Chew. Janelle and Simon can’t wait to see what hilarious, beautiful, and interesting creative endeavours the 2022 cohort has to showcase.

If you’re interested in enrolling in this elective course at The Fenner School, it’s fully booked for Semester 1, but places are still available in Semester 1 2023. The main prerequisites, Dr Stevenson says, are “anyone with an interest in learning about the past, and particularly our environmental past, and who enjoys being out in the field.”

In fact, Catherine and Georgia both enjoyed ENVS3029 so much that they decided 12 weeks wasn’t enough. Both completed special topics in the area of Palaeoecology and are now working as Research Assistants in the field. “The course teaches you countless ways to piece together the past, which is not only interesting, but also creates new opportunities for future study.” adds Catherine. So, if you’d like to learn more, the duo are hosting a takeover on The Fenner School Instagram to talk about their Palaeoecology experiences on Friday February 18th, 2022.

The Fenner School and the Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction course conducts its studies on the unceded lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples - and fit into a long history of teaching and learning from, through, and about Country through working to serve the lands and waters that sustain us, and have sustained Aboriginal people for time immemorial. This always has been and always will be Aboriginal land.