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Alpine Ecology Field Course

Module titleAlpine Ecology Field Course
Module codeBIO3439
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Erik Postma (Convenor)

Dr Barbara Tschirren (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

This 3rd year field course will bring you to a stunning location in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by unique alpine habitats, including forests, meadows, boulder fields, glaciers and snow-capped peaks. You will learn about the adaptations that allow organisms to live in an environment that is characterized by extremes, the fragility of the alpine ecosystem, and observe typical alpine vertebrates (e.g. alpine ibex, alpine marmot, chamois, red squirrel, golden eagle, alpine chough, spotted nutcracker, crested tit, black redstart; with a bit of luck: bearded vulture, red deer, black grouse), invertebrates (e.g. glacier flea, alpine argus), and plants (e.g. Swiss stone pine, gentian, alpine rose). You will witness first-hand the effects that humans have on this unique environment, for example through cattle and sheep herding, see how glaciers are retreating at unprecedented rates due to climate change, and discuss human-wildlife conflicts. In addition to guided excursions and lectures, you will perform a research project that allows you to gain new insights into the behaviour, ecology, and/or evolution of alpine species: In small groups, you will formulate your research question, collect data, analyse them statistically and present the research outcomes. Note that as we will stay at 1800 - 3000 metres above sea level and explore difficult terrain, a reasonable level of fitness and no fear of heights are essential.

Central to the field course will be your deep engagement in the biodiversity, ecology, behaviour, evolution and conservation of native and invaded ecosystems. You will gain first-hand experience of the methods used to study the flora and fauna in often challenging environments through a series of practical sessions, discussions and seminars from a variety of personnel including faculty, local experts, and stakeholders. You will then have the opportunity to implement all you have learned and conduct your own group research projects on an aspect of ecology, evolution, human science or animal behaviour allowing you to acquire some of the essential field skills and experience needed to help you pursue a career in field biology.

Due to the fact that this is a field-based unit in difficult environments it may present a challenge for students with impaired physical abilities or medical conditions. Such students wishing to choose this module should seek advice from the module co-ordinator. Anyone choosing this module will need a reasonable level of fitness in order to be able to undertake the expedition.

To address the climate emergency and potential environmental impact of this module we work with partner organisations to offset and mitigate our carbon budget. We aim to provide vegetarian/vegan food and use exclusively public transport during the field course, and encourage students to consider how they will manage their carbon impact over-and-above carbon offsetting. Students will also be encouraged to engage in sustainable practices throughout.

When participating in international field courses, you will be required to cover any visa costs and, if necessary, purchase prophylatic medication and relevant immunisations. You will also need to provide your own specialist personal equipment appropriate to the field course destination, e.g. walking boots, rucksack, binoculars. Details of specialist equipment, vaccinations and visas that you must supply at your own expense are provided at the bespoke destination ELE page.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to develop your scientific knowledge and understanding within five main areas - ecology, behaviour, evolution, human science and conservation, while based in unfamiliar environments. We will cover:

  • Introduction to a range of habitats, in-country biodiversity, evolutionary backgrounds and the complexity of conservation issues.
  • Observation, data collection, discussion sessions and data synthesis based on a range of activities conducted in natural and semi-natural habitats.
  • Group research projects on an aspect of either biodiversity, behaviour, evolution, human science or conservation.
  • Communicating science to a wide audience.
  • Acquiring skills and experience required to pursue a career in either biodiversity, behaviour, evolution, human science or conservation.

The skills you gain from fieldwork, teamwork, working with unfamiliar biodiversity, and working around the clock, will all stand you in good stead for careers in the environmental sector by developing or enhancing your employability. Transferable skills to other sectors include:

  • problem solving (linking theory to practice, responding to novel and unfamiliar problems, data handling),
  • time management (managing time effectively individually and within a group),
  • collaboration (taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work),
  • self and peer review (taking responsibility for own learning, using feedback from multiple sources),
  • presentation skills and audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats).

The teaching contributions on this module involves elements of research undertaken by module staff. Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through the mini research projects and sourcing material for factsheets and subsequent discussion.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Outline the environmental factors that determine the variation in habitats and biodiversity from an ecological, behavioural, evolutionary, and conservation perspective
  • 2. Explain how to approach studying biodiversity, in all its forms, in the field and an appreciation of the wide range of knowledge bases required for an effective comprehension of the challenges faced.
  • 3. Compare and contrast various strategies to maximise natural habitat and conserve biodiversity in the context of evolutionary pressures

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 5. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 6. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 7. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 8. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 9. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 10. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 12. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 13. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 14. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

The field course is preceded by preparatory lectures well in advance of planned travel.

The Alpine Ecology field course will take place in early September.

Each day of the field course will involve learning activities relevant to the location. Field related activities will start immediately, and culminate in whole-class synthesis and discussion of information. Planning for small-group research projects will proceed from Day 1, in consultation with module staff. Small group projects will be carried out in the latter half of the field course, ending with group presentations of initial findings. Throughout the course there will contributions from local field biology experts along with evening seminars and discussions during which students will be expected to prepare material and contribute in the form of oral contributions and questions. Students will be expected to have prepared for all seminars and discussions: the level of engagement should be more scientific and more scholarly than the level expected during Stage 2 field courses.

On return to the UK you will individually produce a poster based on the results of the project. You will present posters to your colleagues in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation approximately 2-3 weeks after your return.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching2Pre-field course lectures to prepare you academically and practically for the course
Scheduled learning and teaching 108Field-based tutoring from members of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in biodiversity, behaviour, ecology, conservation and other biological topics
Guided independent study190Additional reading and research and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during the field courseOngoing throughout the module1-14Oral
Seminars and discussionsContinuous assessment during the field course1-14Oral
Project presentation during field course10 minutes inc questions1-14Feedback sheet

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Pre-field course factsheet201 side of A4 (Size 12 font)1, 3-5, 8-14Written
Post-field course poster40Poster1-2, 4-11Written
Essay401500 words1-5, 8-11Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Pre-field course factsheetFactsheet1, 3-5, 8-14August Ref/Def
Post-field course posterPoster1-2, 4-11August Ref/Def
EssayEssay1-5, 8-11August Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination and/or re-submit a further factsheet and/or poster. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading:

  • Biodiversity field guides recommended by module staff
  • Tourist guides to travelling in the allocated destination
  • Other texts recommended by module staff

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

field biology, biodiversity, conservation, behaviour, identification, evolution, human science, survey methods, ecology, biogeography

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO2426 Analysis of Biological Data

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date