Promoting employability skills in the culture of learning and teaching is becoming a top priority for the Higher Education sector (HEA, 2016). In our college, data show that the percentage of UG students proactively applying for jobs in their final year is only ca. 20% (source: Careers & Employability, Academic Services). Often, students don’t fully recognize the importance of career preparation or have limited time to commit to the job search. This calls for new strategies to increase student engagement with their career’ options in a continuously evolving and competitive job market (Amoroso & Burke, 2018). Interdisciplinarity is considered a key asset in a future dynamic job landscape requiring multi-disciplinary teamwork and more holistic approaches to problem-solving (Lyall et al., 2015). In this sense, the new context within the School of LSE has the potential to promote innovative and cross-disciplinary teaching opportunities that can better offer a broader range of employability skills required by employers.
Melissopalinology: the Science of Honey
Biodiversity of the Past and Present (GG3111) is a 3rd year Geography module introducing students to the drivers of Biodiversity changes on Earth. For 2019-20, we organized a joint workshop with Biological Sciences to better integrate the ecological and evolutionary perspectives in the course learning outcomes. We identified in Melissopalynology – the discipline studying the source of honey by its pollen content (Fig. 1) – an original interdisciplinary field that is suitable for a workshop combining both theory and practical work. Two dedicated sessions introduced students to foraging strategies in bees (EL) and to laboratory preparation methods (MP). Following this, students worked in small teams and analysed samples of honey under the microscope. By the end of the session, students learnt the principles and challenges of pollen identification in honey and discussed the floristic assemblages and the foraging strategies adopted by bees. The session concluded with a sensory analysis applied to honey in which students could assess (and appreciate) the organoleptic attributes of honey (taste, colour, texture, e.g. Piana,2004) in their analysed samples.
Teaching employability skills
Melissopalynology is one of the possible jobs that Geography UG students with skills on pollen analysis can pursue; we therefore turned this seminar into an opportunity to help students to better reflect on their future career options. We contacted an international company (Dr. Siria Biagioni, QSI International) to know which “key skills” (technical, theoretical and professional) are valued as essential for a job position as Melissopalynologist – this formed the basis for a Job advertisement to distribute among students. We then asked interested students to apply, and to demonstrate in their cover letter how their acquired skills matched the job skills. The submitted cover letters have been evaluated by Careers & Employability, Academic Services (Doreen Thompson-Addo) considering different key criteria (e.g. presentation, motivation and relevance of skills). Feedback was provided as optional formative assessment. Ca 25% of the GG3111 students applied to this job position.
Fig 1.The microscope session introducing students to the analysis of pollen in honey (top). One of the pollen grains (Aster-t) belonging to the group of species of daisy, common on our Campus (middle). The sensorial analysis with samples used in the practical included honey from RHUL apiary (bottom).
Reflections on learning gains
We found several beneficial effects on student learning, ranging from interdisciplinary aspects related to the course content, to more applied skills linked to future career employability:
- Diversifying the teaching content through interdisciplinary approaches (Lyall et al., 2015) meets the intellectual needs of students in the LSE for more environmental teaching, related to e.g. conservation and loss of natural resources. In our case, we found that this is particularly valuable when the lecture is integrated with practical exercises (here microscope and sensorial analyses).
- The choice of a specialized theme (here at the interface between Biological Sciences and Physical Geography) allowed students to acquire technical skills that are unique and specific (e.g. pollen identification from honey) but also transferrable (teamwork, communication, critical analyses). The latter can be used in a wider job market context and has relevance for the long-term career management skills of students (Bridgstock, 2009).
- By linking the lecture content with employability skills, students can better identify themselves in a highly qualified role (“Industry knowledge”). Feedback on job applications helps student to gain more confidence in their career development ability, while also preparing them for the job-search process, as they can reflect upon how their new skills can be transferred in a working environment (e.g. Yorke, 2004; Bassot, 2012).
For qualitative feedback we asked students which new skills they perceived they had acquired during the workshop. In the word cloud (Fig. 2) students highlighted practical (“pollen analysis”) and also transferrable skills (such as communication, teamwork and critical thinking). Capability to apply knowledge, logical thinking and teamwork are key professional competences for employers (Barker, 2014); in this sense our exercise demonstrated how students may better recognize the set of skills acquired during a practical, when guidance is provided.
Fig 2. The word cloud used as a qualitative feedback highlighted both practical (pollen analysis) and transferrable skills (teamwork, communication).
The new opportunities in the School of LSE allow considering more specialized topics that are at the interface between disciplines, including those with highly competing employability skills for students. This is the case for Melissopalynology, a highly specialized field requiring interdisciplinary training as a service for industries, beekeepers and research institutes. For our practical exercise, the involvement of Technical staff is key for transferring technical skills and for student’s engagement, considering that students exhibit learning preferences on teamwork and practical activities (Oblinger 2003).
Extending this to other job profiles would require employability-dedicated seminars for other YR3 courses too. This could be delivered with a formative assessment (as in our case) requiring relatively limited restructuring to the curricula. In the short term, this would help students to better identify interests and preferences for a career path (self-awareness). If delivered through a curriculum-based career program, this would help students to fully develop specific training and job skills during their UG studies and for strengthening the link between taught and required skills by employers (e.g. Amoroso & Burke, 2018).
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