...Explore, where students who may be put off by 'risky' fieldwork learn to follow safely in the footsteps of great explorers, says Nick Smith.
On Saturday, 250 undergraduates from all over the UK will converge on the Royal Geographical Society's headquarters in London to attend Explore 2006, an annual expedition and fieldwork planning seminar that has become an "ink in" diary event for students planning overseas fieldwork. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it has helped to launch the careers of explorers and wilderness survival experts such as Pen Hadow, Benedict Allen and Ray Mears. Another is that Explore is one of the few places where the undergraduate community can go for professional advice about the many diverse aspects of expedition planning. With a speaker-to-delegate ratio of 1:2.5, attendees can take advantage of the mountains of experience on offer.
Despite the fact that the delegates will be learning about specific natural environments, or areas of expedition planning such as risk assessment, safety management and legal liability, the aim of the seminar is not to turn bright young academics into the next Chris Bonington or Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The idea, says Paul Deegan, this year's chair, "is to help to equip students with some of the practical skills and technical knowledge necessary to supplement their expertise gained in the library, lecture hall and the laboratory".
Deegan, a passionate environmental campaigner and seasoned expeditioner, has been attending Explore since he was "metaphorically in short trousers"
and is in no doubt that some of the skills learnt at the seminar enabled him to fulfil a lifetime dream of reaching the summit of Mount Everest in 2004. "But it's not just about standing on top of the world," he says of Explore. "It's about being correctly prepared to go out there and conduct your field research in a safe and responsible manner. It's about understanding what to do if things go wrong in an alien environment."
Over the past 30 years, some 7,500 delegates have attended Explore; 80 per cent of them are undergraduate and postgraduate students of geography and related environmental sciences. At the lectern there have been 3,000 speakers and panellists, half of whom are academics specialising in human, earth and biological sciences as well as education, mapping and surveying.
"Fieldwork puts theory into practice," says Mark Mulligan of the Environmental Monitoring and Modelling Research Group at King's College London. "It provides students with the opportunity to test fresh hypotheses or a long-established theory against the complexities of the real world and across the range of environments and societies that the planet has to offer."
Mulligan, who has been a speaker at Explore (when not in the field himself) since the early 1990s, says that one of the chief values of fieldwork, especially overseas, is that it provides students with problem-solving opportunities "at the frontier". He says: "There is usually only one chance to get it right, and no chance of a return visit to the rainforest because you have forgotten spare batteries for an important piece of kit."
In three decades of Explore, the nature of geography has been overhauled by the digital revolution. The arrival of the PC, the internet, geographical information systems and the global positioning system may have changed the way we view the planet and the rapidity with which scientists can communicate their data, but the core curriculum of Explore has changed remarkably little. Shane Winser, head of the Geography Outdoors section at the RGS, co-ordinates the event each year and still fondly remembers attending the first gathering in 1976 as a student of zoology at Bedford College. "It's still the same mixture of logistics, project planning and research but, because access to even the most remote corners of the world has become easier with cheaper air fares, the responsibilities of pioneering travellers are greater than they have ever been before," Winser says.
The mix might still be the same but, Winser concedes, the emphasis may have changed. "Liability issues have led to demands for increasingly detailed planning and reconnaissance." Here, she is referring to the "hard work"
that so often puts off prospective fieldworkers, thinking they are in for "a bit of a holiday". Before they set foot abroad, the organisers of undergraduate expeditions are often required to demonstrate that their research is original, that they are working closely with their host country and that they have a clear plan for how they are going to communicate their results. If this seems to be putting unfair pressure on inexperienced students, it is a frustration that is shared by one of the greatest polar explorers of the 20th century, Wally Herbert. Herbert, now in his seventies, still recalls that for his historic record-breaking traverse of the Arctic icecap in 1969 "half the expedition was in the planning".
In the UK, undergraduate students in environmental sciences need to produce a dissertation to graduate. This would normally be a piece of independent research and could be field or desk-based. Winser claims that "the opportunity is there for every undergraduate to do their dissertation based on work in the field, but fewer and fewer are taking advantage of the opportunity, despite the fact that institutions have the funding and are prepared to support students who wish to work overseas".
Mulligan agrees: "Overseas fieldwork can be risky compared with the warm library or the air-conditioned computer lab. Risky because logistic, equipment or other difficulties might get in the way of achieving your dissertation objectives... And risky because there are real dangers out there, too."
And even in these days of increased risk-awareness, high-tech outdoor gear, improved medical facilities, insurance and air-lift rescue, it is increasingly difficult for an undergraduate to find a willing insurer if they are not covered by their own university. This is, according to Mulligan, another reason why undergraduates are being driven to the desk-based option, "which is a pity for the students, for their future employers and for our understanding of the planet". These small independent research projects, says Mulligan, contribute piece-by-piece to the wider scientific community's knowledge of the Earth's environments.
Explore started in 1976 as a wide-eyed undergraduate dream, the brainchild of three ambitious undergraduates at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) who originally called their project nothing less than the World Exploration Conference. One of the three founders, Nigel Winser, is now executive director of the Earthwatch Institute in Europe, a conservation body that puts some 4,000 individuals a year into the field, working on more than 130 research projects around the globe. This commitment to fieldwork is central to Earthwatch's mission to promote "a sustainable future for the planet". "Regardless of skills and age, a rich fieldwork experience puts us in touch with the environment, inspires those involved and gives energy to the process of gathering scientific information," Winser says.
Explore 2006 is on November 25-26 at the Royal Geographical Society's headquarters in London. See www.rgs.org/explore for details.