A whirlwind tour in South Africa
Earlier this year I visited Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with a colleague. It was part of a collaborative effort to build links between NMU and the University of Southampton, and a whirlwind tour lasting less than a week. We went to talk to part of the academic team in the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) about planning, creating and delivering online courses like Exploring our Oceans. Whilst we were there we made the most of the opportunity to capture some great new content for the ‘Oceans’ learners. Here’s a little about what I got up to….
Having left the UK on Monday evening, we arrived in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday lunchtime. The time difference of only one hour meant that we didn’t have to cope with jet lag. That was just as well because we had a little time to get our bearings, meet our contact from NMU, and take a short road trip to scope out the local geology, before a working dinner to discuss earth sciences education in South African universities, and what part technology might have to play in that in future…
A puzzle from the past
On Wednesday morning we met some of the AEON team for breakfast and planning the itinerary/filming schedule. AEON’s Science Director, Maarten De Wit has participated in a previous run of Exploring our Oceans. He and the team made us feel very welcome. It was a very international trip; we were working with a French geologist (Dr Bastien Linol), a German biologist (Dr Stephanie Ploen), and an Italian lecturer (architecture) Dr Magda Minguzzi. NMU Masters student Nadia van der Walt was our local drone operator. After a great discussion, and mild cramp from writing notes at speed, we were on our way for a full day in the field with Bastien.
We visited a fossil locality which is 250m above sea level. Bastien’s research investigates if the sea level has risen (and fallen) 250 metres in the last few thousand years, or whether the land has been moved upwards relative to sea level.
After a very hot couple of hours by a roadside we were glad to move on to the Sundays River Estuary. The estuary is the modern day equivalent to the fossil locality we had just left, and also home to the spectacular Alexandria Dunes system.
Whales, dolphins and penguins, oh my!
Thursday started bright and early; we had moved on from geology and were about to record some fascinating stories for Week 3 (Biology). Interest in this subject is usually what attracts learners to the course. Now we had an opportunity to include some great research on some of the oceans’ most loved inhabitants, whales and dolphins. We also spent a couple of hours with the penguins and staff at a Sanccob bird rehabilitation centre. We filmed Stephanie Ploen at Bayworld, a leading tourist attraction in Port Elizabeth which includes a museum and oceanarium.
Filming in the museum galleries was challenging. We didn’t have extra lighting equipment and the museum was open to the public; so occasionally we were interrupted by noise from other visitors. The backdrop to Stephanie’s video about her research was a spectacular skeleton of a Southern Right Whale. We also filmed Stephanie talking about recent research by another international team which revealed something surprising about elusive Humpback Dolphins.
From Bayworld we went across the main coastal road in Port Elizabeth to film the beach and views of the new port development. I counted 14 container ships traversing through our field of view at one point! Stephanie’s research is particularly interesting because she uses a very large collection of skeleton specimens in the Bayworld museum alongside data from live whale and dolphin populations in Algoa Bay.
Sofy and I used Thursday evening as a chance to check through what footage we already had in the bag and double-check our to-do lists. All too quickly, we were heading into our last day with the team.
Last day on location
Friday arrived with an impressive sunrise and we found ourselves at Cape Recife, a nature reserve right on the coast. We filmed Magda Minguzzi here, who showed us some of the earliest human-made structures in South Africa; fish traps constructed by nomadic native people. As well as being an Architecture lecturer, Magda is the Director and Coordinator of a 2017 global arts performance called ‘The Way of the Water’. I created the project website and it was my first experience of using wix.com. I’m generally happy with it, but it was challenging to work with limited amounts of material from other contributors. The different perspectives on what the ocean means to different people are interesting. We ask our learners to consider what the ocean means to them in Weeks 1 and 4 of our course.
Our final afternoon was spent on campus at Nelson Mandela University. Once all of our precious footage was backed up on hard drives, we caught up with Bastien to film the other half of his video. He cut some fossil specimens in the petrology lab before we scurried over to the very impressive Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (or CHR-TEM for short). Here Bastien could explain more about the analysis that will be done on the specimens. Inside info: the microscope that Bastien uses in the video is actually the least expensive (and powerful) in the facility, although it is quite sufficient for his purposes!
In the blink of an eye, we were packing ready for our lunchtime departure on Saturday. We grabbed brunch with Maarten, AEON Director, to debrief about our trip and plan ahead for future collaborations. I’m very pleased that not a single meeting was conducted in a meeting room for the entire trip. It completely changed the feel of the work. All of the staff involved got hands on experience in developing online course design, storyboarding, and filming techniques in a very dynamic way. By Sunday lunchtime we were back home in the UK, tired but inspired!
All of the edits are now complete. It will be exciting to see what our learners make of the new content; the course goes live on the 17th of July 2017.