Many of our students are passionate about environmental protection – but do they know what jobs are available in this field? Bringing professionals into the classroom gives students a window into the real work being done and inspires them to get more involved.
“How do you become a conservation biologist?”
This is the question ecologist Philippe Fernandez-Fournier hears most often when he visits high schools in British Columbia. Fernandez-Fournier is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University and the co-founder of local conservation NGO, Wide Open Projects, based in Vancouver.
“Students want to know what’s available to them career-wise if they take the path of ecological studies and unfortunately, sometimes it seems to them like there just aren’t that many opportunities,” says Fernandez-Fournier. “But that isn’t true. It can be difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
“How do we, as educators and parents, channel this passion into creating practical higher education and career opportunities for them?”
For students in Canada today and around the globe, there’s no shortage of passion and ambition when it comes to finding creative solutions to environmental issues.
These are the children and teens coming of age in a more enlightened culture, eyes open to the realities of destructive human activities on the planet.
More than any other group of young people in history, today’s students are keenly aware of the challenges we face due to climate change.
More importantly, these young people know that they will bear the brunt of the consequences if we fail to make big changes soon.
We have young, enthusiastic students ready to become green ambassadors of change in the work force. The question is: How do we, as educators and parents, channel this passion into creating practical higher education and career opportunities for them?
Fernandez-Fournier and others like him are stepping up to help, hoping to show high school students interested in ecology that there are indeed pathways to success. “When I was an undergrad in biology,” says Fernandez-Fournier, “the only opportunities shown to me at the time were lab work, which I didn’t find that interesting. But as I got to know and connect with hands-on field ecologists, I became sure of the career path I’m on now. I want to share that excitement with other young students.”
Fernandez-Fournier started as an undergraduate student in a lab at McGill University in Montreal, and got his first taste of ecological field work volunteering with an organization called Operation Wallacea in Honduras. He never stopped after that; his master’s research at the University of British Columbia led him to study spiders in the jungles of Ecuador. His discovery of a parasitoid wasp that controls the minds of social spiders in the Amazon was recently profiled in Scientific American.
“All of these experiences made me want to contribute more, and with like-minded people, which is why I started Wide Open Projects with my friends. We focus on conservation awareness, coral reef restoration, and community development,” says Fernandez-Fournier.
The coral reef restoration project uses an innovative method of hand-bending metal rebar into dome-like structures and then skillfully attaching bits of coral to it – which, when done correctly, flourishes into a healthy and multi-species coral community.
Wide Open Projects and community partners have created two successful pilot projects, and this past summer built and placed 66 more structures on the ocean floor.
Students in Canada and Indonesia, as well as biology colleagues around the world, are closely following the progress of Fernandez-Fournier and his team via social media.
But Fernandez-Fournier urges students not to feel compelled to follow his path exactly. Instead, he asks them to seek out opportunities that appeal to their own unique interests, whether that be lab work, field ecology, or green policy development. He encourages students to be proactive in seeking out any and all opportunities to volunteer and work with local university professors, NGOs, or other outdoor organizations. “Don’t be afraid to contact people and ask how you can help. Much of what’s needed now is just people willing to show up and do the work.”
He encourages educators to do the same. “Ask grad students and professionals in your community to visit your classroom and talk about their work. Most people, if they have the time, are more than willing to talk about their passion projects.”
“We all need to be bold and face the future proactively.”
Reaching out to potential role models, admittedly, is not always the easiest route and isn’t guaranteed to yield results, which is why many shy away from the idea.
The same is true for students, who worry about being rejected and therefore don’t put in the ask to join field research or volunteer opportunities abroad. They may even withdraw from ecology pursuits entirely, seeking out the road more travelled instead.
But if we learn anything from scientists such as Fernandez-Fournier working on the frontline of environmental challenges, it’s that we all need to be bold and face the future proactively, before allowing these challenges to come to us.
Photos: Philippe Fernandez-Fournier
First published in Education Canada, March 2020