Summertime Geography Fieldwork
The Summer Term saw the Geography Department embracing many opportunities to carry out essential fieldwork. This has become even more central to our aims as its importance has grown in the GCSE and A-Level external examinations. Collecting appropriate first-hand data out in the field and learning to observe carefully is a special skill which needs to be taught through personal experience. Analysing findings and evaluating the process is complex and challenging, even to our Sixth Formers, given the uncertainties of the real world measured against oversimplified models. I have always believed this experience inspires young geographers more than anything else. They become far more aware and look at the world through new eyes. So many geographers get back in touch with me years after leaving telling me I should visit places they are excited to experience, from the spectacular fjords of South Island New Zealand to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. They always tell me they are reminded of their Geography lessons and are so inspired by being equipped to ‘see’ a place from a human, environmental and physical geographer’s perspective. Only last week, I heard from Freya Sykes who left
Withington to study Geography at Edinburgh five years ago, graduating with a First-Class degree. Now she is carrying out fieldwork investigating sediment cores around Northern Scandinavia for her thesis and aiming to work at the Abisko Research station in the Arctic. She is loving research and I was delighted to hear how her Withington Geography fieldwork journey has inspired her.
In May, all of Year 9 took a short coach ride into the centre of Manchester. The sun was shining and, after a birds-eye view of our fast-changing city centre from the Beetham Tower’s 23rd floor, we explored various areas that have been regenerated, many unknown to our Year 9 cohort. We used a variety of qualitative fieldwork techniques like the ‘sensory perception’ study of Spinningfields where using sight, taste, sound, touch and smell heightened awareness of the qualities of this modern steel and glass business quarter. The girls were all exceptional with their questionnaire skills and found the public responses enlightening, often very different from their own view, which helped confirm how subjective perception is. Our industrial heritage captured in the refurbished buildings of Castlefield and the Northern Quarter was highlighted in field sketching and environmental assessments and certainly they will never ignore the architecture of our city on their personal shopping trips in future.
Soon after the half term break, all Year 7 were out on a new venture. I wanted to create a fun inspiring study without the long coach journey that eats up so much time. To meet the demands of the new specifications, I devised a day of assessing how green our city is around Fallowfield and Chorlton, close to School. We focused on biodiversity, use of green areas and the aesthetics a green space can create. The local allotments, the Fallowfield Loop (once a railway line now a green
corridor for cyclists and walkers linking Fallowfield to Chorlton), the traditional town park in Chorlton, Beech Road Park (a small community space), Chorlton Green (the old village green recapturing the past) and, finally, the woodlands and riverside walk of the Mersey Valley Regional Park. They observed and recorded the variety of wildflowers and deciduous trees offering shade and deadening traffic noise and areas of open grassland for numerous types of recreation. It helped all the girls appreciate the work of local government to create a sustainable, healthy, productive and attractive environment. The morning refreshment in McDonald’s gave them the energy to carry on walking and working, and a pizza lunch at Croma in Chorlton was a fun social occasion where they could all relax for a well-earned rest.
Year 8 were off a week later to Llandudno, but we were not fortunate with the weather. The aim was to explore the physical and human features of this unique seaside town to assess its true potential for tourism. The old Victorian pier was a key study point, but that was closed after being damaged in a storm and our study of pebble movement on the beach was challenging in the high winds. The girls, as always, were positive and focused and even though our special ‘waterproof’ booklets were soon damp, they soldiered on. The Victorian tram ride up the Great Orme took us to the café, shops and amenities at the top where we could all eat in warmth and comfort and the girls then all excelled in using their questionnaires with the public, who were happy to engage with them as we all sheltered. The skies cleared a little after lunch so we could continue our exploration of tourist facilities. Some of the incredible field sketches of the grand hotels along the front completed as a final stop were impressive; memorable proof of why this is regarded as ‘The Queen of Welsh Resorts’.
A crucial fieldwork time for the A-Level group and a culmination of the skills acquired over our fieldwork programme happens in this last half of the Summer Term. We firstly carried out compulsory group fieldwork, exploring more quantitative techniques to balance the qualitative ones we had used in an earlier study of the Northern Quarter. We recorded data to our devices using ArcGIS and later used it for analysis back at school. We began on the 23rd floor of the Beetham Tower, always a great overview of the city to start the day. The layout and infrastructure of the city centre, old refurbished quarters and new redevelopments were easily identifiable, especially the glass and steel multi-storey blocks going up all around the city. To count the cranes was evidence enough! Pedestrian counting, EQAs, land-use mapping and interviewing members of the public provided enough data to show the success of the emerging peripheral ‘Quarters’ like Castlefield, Spinningfields and the Northern Quarter, but that Manchester’s Victorian infrastructure still controls
the flow of people around our city. Regeneration of prestigious areas such as St Peter’s Square right in the centre balances the changes and keeps the focus on important public realms. This group trip then inspired the girls to come up with a study for their own individual independent studies that were to contribute 20% of their A-Level. All of them were positive and excited and linked with a Geography teacher as their mentor. They have chosen different areas of the city centre and interesting ideas to test out. It is clear the legacy of the fieldwork through all the school years is what makes this task much more intuitive. Out of all my Geography teaching experiences, fieldwork enables a special relationship between staff and pupil, and to be guided by their interest and enthusiasm to unravel the complexities of this local urban environment is rewarding. Urban planners would be fascinated to see their thinking and the outcome of their studies. I wish all the Lower Sixth the very best of luck with their fieldwork inquiries over the next four months.
The quality of the fieldwork investigations from the Year 13 candidates for their A-Level was excellent and special prizes were given out in final Assembly as recognition for the quality of investigations that a third year university undergraduate would be proud of. It confirms how we, as teachers, can inspire young people to be passionate about their environment and know they are capable of thinking of ways a difference can be made.
Year 10 carried out their first GCSE fieldwork assignment, which was their Human one. They visited the regenerated area of Hulme to measure it against the Hulme of the 1980s they had studied in class. The focus was on all the skills that helped them evaluate the quality of the built environment but also to see how effective the greening of this part of the inner city has been and the success of the social programmes for the communities such as the Z-Arts Centre, the creative workshops and the Community Garden centre as well as the impressive architecture and landscaping of the new MMU Development that is bringing so many students into the area. They will be beginning the new academic year with their Physical Geography River Study. Geography is a very diverse subject and the girls have learnt to explore their local environments very rigorously over this last term, creating memories and an understanding they will never forget.