In a transformative day-long field visit, 93 eager students from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Aga Khan University (AKU) embarked on a thrilling journey of scientific discovery, immersing themselves in the heart of ecological research. The site was AKU’s 1200 acres of land in Education City on the outskirts of Karachi, which is ecologically interesting as the majority has not been altered for decades and local vegetation being left untouched. With the operational net zero focus and increased dedication to research on environment and climate in health and in other AKU geographies, this piece of unique landscape is now considered a ‘living lab’ for research activities.
The field trip sought to curate an immersive experience, not only to explore scientific approaches to the natural world but also honing their observational and artistic skills while nurturing their curiosity. The activities were conducted in small groups, strengthening their collaboration skills and congregating individual knowledge. The groups of students rotated through four different activities from different disciplinary and methodological approaches.
For the tree counting activity, student groups were guided by cheat sheets detailing the region's most common tree species. With a meticulous eye, they had to identify the tree species, count and document the abundance of each species. For unfamiliar trees, they tapped into the power of the internet or consulted with seasoned gardeners, enriching their knowledge as they progressed.
Open-ended interviews with local gardeners and guards formed the core of the second activity. Each group delved into different topics, including ecological history, meanings of spaces and natural elements, overall water situation, and experiences in the extreme 2022 monsoon season. Encouraged to explore deeper questions and engage in meaningful conversations, students walked away not only with valuable insights but also with critical experiences of working with raw data on-the-spot emergent issues.
The students' artistic talents were called upon as they engaged in leaf line drawings in the next activity, a common method of scientific illustration. Armed with notebooks, they meticulously drew up to five leaves, focusing on sharpening their observation skills and delving into the intricate world of botanical details, often taken for granted or overlooked in everyday life. This interdisciplinary approach allowed them to explore the ecosystem at various levels, from the macro to the micro.
Safety and teamwork were paramount as students roamed AKU's grounds in search of insects and other living creatures for the fourth activity. Armed with their phone cameras, they captured these fascinating creatures for identification purposes. The resulting records not only documented their findings but also served as a platform for insightful reflections on their discoveries.
The field visit, facilitated with the AKU Office of Environment and Sustainability, was a resounding success, empowering FAS students to connect classroom knowledge with real-world applications. Dr. Stephen Lyon, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at AKU, remarked, "These activities were designed to ignite curiosity and cultivate a deeper understanding of the environment. We are thrilled to see our students actively engage in ecological research, bridging the gap between theory and practice."
As these budding scientists commence their formal studies this week, they carry with them a newfound appreciation for the intricate web of life around us and the essential role they play in its conservation. Aga Khan University and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences is deeply committed to fostering experiential learning and nurturing the next generation of informed, ethical, and passionate researchers.
The field day was also part of the activities for Global Ismaili Civic Day 2023 celebrated over the last weekend across the world, honing the tenets of volunteerism and improving the quality of life, with environmental stewardship as the year’s theme.