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The impact of a collaborative scheme to improve biodiversity in school grounds on pupils’ wellbeing and attainment

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Tuesday, January 31, 2017
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project will aim to establish the impact of an outdoor learning programme on wellbeing and attainment of pupils. The programme will focus on using the school grounds to improve and monitor biodiversity, and will focus on pupil-led investigation, supported by undergraduate students.

The ‘extinction of experience’, a phrase coined by Robert Pyle almost 40 years ago to describe increasing disengagement from the natural world (1,2), is often invoked as a matter of pressing concern both in the public and academic scientific domains. This has also been conceptualised by Louv (3) as a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, with this disengagement leading to rising levels of childhood obesity, poor social skills, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

Given the evidence that attitudes to the environment and engaging with nature are largely forged in childhood (4,5), the importance of starting to tackle the problem with the younger generations seems self-evident. However, this opportunity is clearly not currently being taken, with numerous recent reports indicating that, if anything, opportunities to do this through curriculum-mandated fieldwork in England are declining (6–10). The negative effects of the extinction of experience phenomenon are well-established (for a recent review see11), and the benefits of outdoors ecological learning are wide-ranging: with findings suggesting gains not only in school science attainment (12–15) and interest in science-related careers (13), but also in areas including well-being (16,17), health and fitness (18), environmental attitudes in adulthood (4,5), and literacy (14,19).

Biodiversity is an important indicator of environmental health, but is in decline across the UK, with the 2016 State of Nature report (20) identifying a decline in 56% of species since 1970, with 19% of species under threat of extinction. This loss of biodiversity, concurrent with the decline in children’s engagement with the outdoors, provides an ideal focus for an outdoor learning scheme. Since school pupils are tomorrow’s custodians of nature, it is vital that they are made aware of the importance of biodiversity, and given species recognition skills and the tools to improve and maintain ecosystems. School grounds provide an ideal but under-used land resource to monitor biodiversity and to build habitats for species in all taxa. Furthermore, they are often associated with consortia, for example secondary schools and multiple feeder schools all within a single catchment area. This provides an ideal opportunity to create so-called “wildlife corridors” in order to facilitate the establishment of refugia and movement of individuals between these areas to support mating opportunities, important for the survival of species. It also provides an opportunity to investigate how increasing engagement with ecology could increase well-being and attainment across all key stages.

There will be three phases to this project:

i) In-depth surveys of school grounds to establish the current state of biodiversity in this habitat – this will involve 30 schools, carefully targeting a broad range of different types of schools to give a representative overview. This will include: rural, suburban, and urban; nursery, primary, secondary, sixth form and through schools; state, voluntary assisted, free schools, academies, and private schools; single and mixed sex schools. From these surveys, lists of commonly found species will be compiled, to inform the development of resources to aid identification and monitoring by schools in phase 2.

ii) Development of a long-term biodiversity monitoring scheme for schools that involves the pupils; the schools recruited for phase 1 will be used as ‘sampling sites’ for this program, and they will be actively encouraged to collaborate with any associated schools in their area (e.g. feeder schools and members of local educational consortia). This scheme will involve development of multi-media resources which are linked to the national curriculum (Key Stages 1-5), in order to encourage take-up by teachers. A dedicated identification site for teachers and a recording app for pupils will also be developed to support participation.

iii) Implementation of a large, randomised study to evaluate the efficacy of the monitoring programme to improve wellbeing (measured using age-appropriate scales such as the Adolescent Wellbeing Scale21) and attainment in pupils. This evaluation will compare children in participating and non-participating (control) schools, as well as incorporating test-retest measurements of outcomes for participating children pre- and post- intervention.

Training plan:

Identification skills and surveying techniques for plants, invertebrates and vertebrates, Website development, App development, Statistics in R, social statistics, Conference presentations will be given at the British Ecological Society meetings and the Association for Science Education teachers’ conference.

Funding Notes

Applicants should already have or be expected to obtain a First or upper Second Class degree in a relevant discipline. This studentship is fully funded for three years. It covers tuition fees at the UK/EU rate and includes a stipend at the standard Research Council rate (currently £16,296 per annum). Funding is available for UK and EU students.


(1) Pyle, R. Left Bank 1992, 2, 61–69.

(2) Pyle, R. The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland; Houghton Mifflin: Bostin, 1993.

(3) Louv, R. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.; Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC, 2008.

(4) Asah, S. T.; Bengston, D. N.; Westphal, L. M. Environ. Behav. 2011, 44 (4), 545–569.

(5) Gifford, R.; Nilsson, A. Int. J. Psychol. 2014, 49 (3), 141–157.

(6) Barker, S.; Slingsby, D.; Tilling, S. FSC Occas. Publ. 2002, FSC Occasi (May), 1–16.

(7) Berks Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust. Help us keep nature in the National Curriculum.

(8) Lambert, D.; Reiss, M. J. Ssr 2015, 97 (359), 89–95.

(9) Lock, R.; Tilling, S. Sch. Sci. Rev. 2002, 84 (307), 79–88.

(10) Outdoor Science Working Group. 2011, 16.

(11) Soga, M.; Gaston, K. J. Front. Ecol. Environ. 2016, 14 (2), 94–101.

(12) Hamilton‐Ekeke, J. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 2007, 29 (15), 1869–1889.

(13) Prokop, P.; Tuncer, G.; Kvasničák, R. J. Sci. Educ. Technol. 2007, 16 (3), 247–255.

(14) Scott, G. W.; Boyd, M. Educ. 3-13 2014, 1–10.

(15) Lindemann‐Matthies, P. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 2006.

(16) Chawla, L.; Keena, K.; Pevec, I.; Stanley, E. Health Place 2014, 28, 1–13.

(17) O’Brien, L. Educ. 3-13 2009, 37 (1), 45–60.

(18) Wells, N. M.; Myers, B. M.; Henderson, C. R. Prev. Med. (Baltim). 2014, 69 Suppl 1, S27-33.

(19) Scott, G. W.; Boyd, M. Educ. 3-13 2012, 42 (5), 517–527.

(20) RSPB. State of Nature; London, 2016.

(21) Birleson, P. J. Child Psychol Psych. 1980, 22, 73-88.

How good is research at Royal Holloway, University of London in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.00

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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