Palaeoecology at UvA and Twente 2015: Teaching and Learning

September 21, 2015

By Crystal McMichael

The month-long palaeoecology module at UvA is coming to an end. We have had two weeks of lectures and microscope work, an introduction to quantitative palaeoecology, and we just finished a week of fieldwork in Twente, which is in the easternmost part of the Netherlands.

Students working in the field (photo: M. Groot)

Students working in the field (photo: M. Groot)

Will Gosling and I tried something new for the field excursion this year. We split the class into eight groups, and gave each group a set of pollen and phytolith samples from an ‘unknown location’. Unknown in this context means being from one of the eight primary sites that we would visit during the field excursion. The students were required to perform vegetation surveys and characterize soils at each of the primary sites that we visited. The goal of each group was to figure out which location their set of ‘unknown’ samples came from. Basically, we had them doing forensic palynology, with idea that they could then better visualize the different vegetation assemblages seen in the palaeoecological records.

The students completed the task of running a project that began with data collection in the field, progressed through quantitative analyses, and ended with the conclusion of which site they were given. On the last day in Twente the students presented their analyses to the class. Many of the groups succeeded in identifying where their samples came from, and had very strong justifications for their ideas! Success! We gave the top two groups little gifts for their hard work.

Students working on their projects (photo: M. Groot)

Students working on their projects (photo: M. Groot)

But the success of the course would not have been possible without the assistance of many people. Tom Peters and Jippe Kreuning assisted during the practical work, and Suzette Flantua assisted in both the practical work and the fieldwork. Mirella Groot’s knowledge of the flora was vital to the success of the project. Bas van Geel helped out with many logistic aspects of the course, and Henry Hooghiemstra came and gave the students and myself a lovely tour on the history of the Molenven. Stefan Engels provided advice and support in all aspects of the course.

Hopefully Will, Stefan, and I have taught these students about concepts, techniques, and new directions in palaeoecology, and also taught them how to think critically and how to begin functioning as independent observers and researchers. For me, this process has also been a huge learning experience. I am beginning to learn a new ecosystem (first time in the eastern hemisphere or higher latitudes!), and all of the people mentioned above have been very helpful in teaching this new system to me. I can also now go into the next year with an idea of how things work, and what components may need slight modifications.

Student presentations (photo: M. Groot)

Student presentations (photo: M. Groot)

But spending the week in Twente with the students and staff also taught me a lot more than the similarities and differences in ecology and palaeoecology between Netherlands and tropical systems. I have learned quite a bit about Dutch language and culture. The Ootmarsum Kruidenbitter was a particularly nice feature of the culture in Twente! This trip was definitely an immersion experience that is not possible at UvA, where everyone is working in English. And that, for me, was again a huge success! Tot ziens 🙂


  1. Go Crystal and Will! Enjoyed the field trip!

  2. This was my first encounter with paleoecology, but I’m already longing for more!

  3. I have learned so much about palaeoecology already and the field trip was great!

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