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Planning begins for a return to in-person learning

2019 ServeryThis year’s Winter virtual End of Term event recognized more than just another successful term at the BISC; it was a celebration of the outstanding collective effort that went into achieving an exceptional distance learning experience for our students. The turnout was excellent, with many students making an effort to tune in and pass on their best wishes to the faculty. The accompanying image is a screengrab of attendees watching a joint performance by the BISC Student Choir and the Dance Club.

You can watch their performance of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/HVjjOIgb6og 

The students voted unanimously that the David Baguley and Stan Corbett Awards for outstanding teaching would be shared equally by the entire faculty at the BISC. Many congratulations to all the faculty concerned for inspiring our cohort this year. You are proof that the BISC is so much more than bricks and mortar!

Thanks also to our Musicians-in-Residence, Dr. Shelley Katz and Dr. Diana Gilchrist, for direction on the day and all their efforts to support a virtual choir throughout this strangest of academic years. It’s extra-curricular activities like these that remind students, though they may be joining us remotely, that they are part of a wider, supportive network here at the BISC.

2019 DryThat was an example of the outstanding virtual experience at the Castle, but what of a return to in-person learning? Well, as restrictions begin to ease and the UK government does its best to implement its roadmap out of lockdown, there’s a definite sense of optimism in the UK at the moment! This extends to the BISC, of course, where we are committed to the very real prospect of on-site learning at the Castle in September 2021.

The safety of our students, faculty and staff will continue to be our highest priority, as will compliance with official government guidelines, of course, but this does not stop us from looking ahead and being proactive in our planning. To best protect our community, we will introduce several new health and safety guidelines and campus protocols, all of which have been devised in collaboration with Global Affairs Canada and the UK Public Health Authority, respectively.

We’re thrilled to report that at the time of writing, we currently have 127 students who have accepted their place to join in person this September. Evidently, we will need to keep plans under review over the coming months as government guidance is updated, but we have every reason to be optimistic about next Fall at the BISC!

The BISC Alumni Spotlight Series - June 2021

Spotlightees June21Here's another quartet of ex-Castle students sharing their experiences of the BISC and letting us know what they are up to now. In this issue, three of our four alumni are from the 04/05 cohort - entirely by chance, of course – but if you’d like to redress the balance and hear about classmates in your own year, you know where to find us!

If you are curious to hear about our other Spotlightees - good news! You'll find them all archived on the site under the month they were published. 

We absolutely love hearing about what you are all up to, so please keep those nominations and stories coming!

BISC Skills Award offers students a more holistic academic experience

Article3We are very proud to announce that this year the BISC’s dedicated Student Success Co-ordinator, Dr. Isabelle Brent, was awarded the Principal’s Teaching and Learning Award for International Education Innovation. Isabelle received the award, via a virtual award ceremony, for her outstanding work on the BISC Skills Award (BSA) initiative.

As reported in our last Castle Herald (Back to School), the BSA is designed to help students get the most from co-curricular activities while enrolled with the BISC. Our BSA students were invited to work with a coach to improve not just their academic skills but also set goals and attend workshops that would contribute to their personal development. In only its first year, the program was an overwhelming success, providing the sort of additional content that kept students engaged and immersed in the Castle experience, despite the virtual nature of most of their interactions.  

To qualify for the BSA, students are invited to create and submit goals with the help of a skills coach and participate in activities from a range of different skills areas. The final stage of the Award is to write a 1,000-word structured personal reflection in which students develop skills to articulate their experiences and learning outcomes and generate insights they can carry with them well into the future.

BSA Badge 1 colourFrom the very outset, Isabelle identified that BISC graduates should be able to demonstrate the following six attributes on completion of their time at the BISC:

  • Academic excellence
  • Self-awareness
  • Resilience
  • Effective communication
  • Professionalism
  • Global citizenship

Principal Patrick Deane notes, “The BSA was recognized as an innovative way to elicit change through the globalized learning outcomes that were created in response to the question, ‘what do we expect our students to acquire from a specific course or program, or more generally from an education at our university?’ The impact that this initiative has on students’ self-awareness at the BISC is so very clear and commendable. They will be able to take this with them through their education and beyond.”

Isabelle’s development of the BSA programme was a huge undertaking, but it demonstrates her deep commitment to our students and her desire not just to support them but to implement innovative strategies to help them thrive.

“In the past, I have worked with parent groups, and I also teach positive psychology,” says Isabelle, “and so the messaging was that parents could trust the BISC not to allow their students to fall through the cracks. This programme was designed with an overall emphasis on positive psychology delivered through programming, coaching, and mentoring.”

It is absolutely fantastic that Isabelle’s efforts have been recognized in such a way and the initiative can only improve the Castle experience for all students who take part. Congratulations Isabelle!

An interview with Dr. Simon Coppard

Article4Dr. Simon Coppard joined the BISC in January 2020 as a lecturer in Biology, and by the following Summer, he had been appointed our full-time Science Co-ordinator. He inherited a Science program at the Castle bursting with potential, including the brand-new BISC Science and Innovation Laboratories. Of course, a global pandemic quickly sent all his students home. With in-person learning set to return in September this year, we thought we would ask him to introduce himself to our alumni and outline some of the exciting plans he has for Science programming at the BISC.

Dr. Coppard, your faculty profile describes you as a ‘multidisciplinary evolutionary Biologist.’ Would you mind telling us a little about your background, please and how you came to join the faculty at the BISC?

I am originally from Mayfield in East Sussex, and my family has lived in the area for hundreds of years. We decided to move back to the UK from upstate New York, where I was teaching at Hamilton College, due to my wife’s work and a desire to get our son into the UK school system. I started at the BISC in January 2020 and could instantly see the potential that the site, facilities and location could offer, particularly to science students. 

My PhD training was in marine ecology, morphology and invertebrate systematics, which led me to positions at the Natural History Museum, London and several research fellowships at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. At STRI, I worked on producing molecular phylogenies of sand dollars to look at speciation before and after the closure of the Isthmus of Panama. Why sand dollars? Well, ecologically, they are important as they function as ecosystem engineers (species that modify their environment and create and maintain habitats), but they also have an excellent fossil record which allows accurate tracing of morphological, ecological and molecular divergence through time.  This use of a combination of paleontological, ecological, morphological and genetic data allows me to apply a holistic approach to my research.

More recently, I have been working on the expression of genes that control lunar spawning; sea urchin phylogenomics; how venom has evolved in sea urchin species that live in different habitats to defend against predators and parasites, and how sea urchin gut microbiomes vary between species and locality. I bring this research into the classroom to make connections between what we are discussing as part of the Biology course and real world applications. These projects also open up opportunities for student research. This summer, I am working with Life Sciences major Erika Spagnuolo on my sea urchin venomics project.  

As a systematist, I value the description of new species and taxonomic expertise. To this end, I have described a number of new species and genera, including the first species to be discovered on eBay: BBC - Outriders: An Exquisite New Species found on Ebay.

How did you respond to the challenge of virtual learning during the lockdown, and do you have a favourite virtual experiential learning opportunity (VELO)  you can describe for us?

Teaching online has been challenging, particularly first-year Biology, which is very information-heavy. My teaching style is discussion-based, so I decided to make all the classes this term synchronous to encourage student interaction, both with me and each other. Essentially, I tried to give the class a similar feel to as if it was in-person, so that connections could be made. Judging from student feedback, this worked really well, although many weren’t all thrilled at the allotted class time due to the time differences between them (it was 9:00 a.m. for students in Ontario, 7:00 a.m. for students in Alberta, but 9:00 p.m. for students in China).

I believe in a skills-based approach to labs, so this term, I gave the students data but then taught them how to use open source tools to analyze the data. For example, I ran a lab/tutorial that posed the question, ‘What fish are you eating?’

I went through how they would extract the DNA from fish samples, how to run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and understand DNA sequencing, but then gave them the DNA data from previous years that contained several species that had been mis-sold (when filleted, many fish species look identical after all). Students then used molecular phylogenetic tools to align DNA sequences, analyze relationships between species, and use the Nucleotide Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (NCBI BLAST) to determine if their species had been correctly identified and sold. We then discussed the implications of mis-selling fish in regard to biosecurity, fraud (where this may have occurred), protected species (CITES) and implications for human health.

This term’s VELOs focused on rewilding a habitat on the Herstmonceux Castle Estate. Students were introduced to the Estate and its habitats by Estate Manager, Guy Lucas. This was bittersweet for many students, as they finally got to see a lot more of the beautiful surroundings but further realized what they had unfortunately missed out on experiencing this year. As a class, we discussed rewilding and then in groups, students were asked to propose a specific habitat to rewild.

This included the introduction of rare or endangered species or the use of proxy species for those now extinct to provide the ecological services needed. They developed a realistic time frame with milestones for species introductions, predicted outcomes and legacy on the Estate. Students then presented their proposals at the end-of-term student conference.

As I strongly believe in an interdisciplinary approach, I asked Dr. Tim Huzar to start the session with a talk on the philosophy of sustainability, and the students then gave excellent presentations that reflected the hard work they had put into this project and the year.

Students at the BISC get to live and work in rather unique surroundings. Are there any projects you have in mind that would leverage the access they have to the woodland, meadows and marshland right on their doorsteps?

Deer2Yes, I am currently working with Estate Manager Guy Lucas to develop rewilding of specific habitats on the Estate that will increase biodiversity, protect both habitats and species, and in time hopefully result in the development of suitable habitats that will encourage the return of rare species. This forms part of our wider sustainable development goals, particularly addressing United Nations SDGs 13 to 15, climate action, life underwater, and life on landWe are also currently looking at installing a boardwalk through the fenlands on the Estate that contains rare plant communities (e.g. Cornish Moneywort, Milk Parsley, Water Violet) and is home to the endangered Fen Raft Spider. The hope is that this boardwalk (subject to appropriate environmental surveys) will provide protected guided access to both students and the general public, with interpretive signage that will highlight the species present and their importance to the ecosystem.

The boardwalk will extend the current trail system and initiate a program of educational and interpretive signage around the Estate. The aim of these projects is to link the classroom with the Estate and develop an ethos of environmental stewardship among the students during their time with us, which they will carry with them in their lives.

Do you have plans for any additional Science courses at the BISC?

I am in the process of developing new upper-year courses in Marine Biology and Science Communication. The Marine Biology course will be largely fieldwork-based with a strong emphasis on the techniques used to study biodiversity and the evolutionary and ecological processes that regulate it. Our close proximity to the coast and the range of habitats available to us, for example, sandy shore, rocky shore and estuarine habitats, make the BISC an ideal location for this course. This class will take advantage of the new Science Innovation Labs and teach the students morphological, ecological and genetic techniques to study species diversity and abundance and the appropriate statistical analyses to measure this.

The Science Communication course will have strong ties with both our rewilding projects and the Environments of Change project, with a strong emphasis on climate change both past, present and future. Students will use the habitats on the Estate and Pevensey Levels to discuss historical effects, including human population size, land use and farming in the region, and changes we are now seeing in terms of fauna and flora distribution. They will look at local changes in climate such as winter flooding, hot dry summers and variation in sea levels and how action now can help mitigate these effects. They will also discuss the future effects under various models and scenarios. The aim is to collaborate with the Observatory Science Centre (OSC) and develop a course that uses their expertise to develop a curriculum that results in students developing displays and content that they then deliver to the public, both on the Estate and at the OSC. As part of this course, I envisage students taking their work out into the wider community, including schools and community centres, highlighting the work being done at the BISC and therefore making it more accessible.

You mentioned the Environments of Change project with Dr. Steven Bednarski. Can you tell us what the plan is once lockdown is lifted and students can get back out in the field again?

3It will be great to have students back in person! This term, I have been working with two Master’s students (Erin Kurian and Jacqueline Gergal, from our long-time research partners, the University of Waterloo) to produce short videos on The Medieval Climate Optimum and the Little Ice Age from a global and a local southeast UK perspective. These will form the start of a display explaining the Environments of Change project to the general public. I have also been putting up dendrometers on oak trees on the estate to measure tree growth in relation to precipitation and microhabitats and taking tree cores of the oldest oak trees to measure oxygen isotope ratios in the tree rings. In collaboration with Professor Neil Loader at Swansea University, we will use the isotope ratios to reconstruct summer temperatures and summer precipitation at the Castle through time, ideally back to the Medieval Climate Optimum. When students are back on site, I hope to extend this to other old oak trees in the area, so students will help with the tree coring (which is sterile and does not harm the tree) and data analysis.

Dendrometer on Oak treeThe plan is also to begin taking exploratory sediment cores across the Pevensey Levels, particularly from around the edge of the valley where rivers run into the valley near Wartling and from behind the Pevensey sea barrier. Such ‘washovers’ at the barrier may provide information on sequential breaching events through time and, therefore, information on flooding. One of the questions we are interested in is whether the Pevensey Barrier is more recent than the barrier at Romney Marsh, and if so, why? Students will help with core sampling and identifying diatoms through the core stratigraphy (freshwater species versus marine) and help look for areas of sand above decomposed vegetation to indicate more recent fluvial action. We hope to use isotope analysis of decomposed vegetation to date these events and establish what is natural and what constitutes medieval activity. 

What would you say to a High School student who was thinking about coming to the BISC?

I would hugely encourage high school students to come to the BISC. Here they will benefit from learning in the small class, but cross-institutional environment working with their professors in a welcoming and respectful atmosphere that encourages critical thinking and discussion. This really helps builds student confidence and teaches them the skills they will need moving forward. In Biology, I offer an inquiry-based lab curriculum that enables students to take responsibility for their learning and offers them opportunities to participate more in active learning. The 500-acre Castle estate provides a living laboratory for studying the rich variety of ecosystems and is perfectly suited for hands-on investigations. Why just study in the classroom when you can learn so much more from the environment around you!

A focus on Sustainability

WoodlandAs many of you will already be aware, earlier this year, the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings revealed that Queen’s University had placed first in Canada and fifth in the world in its global ranking of universities that are advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within and beyond their local communities. The rankings measured more than 1,200 post-secondary institutions around the world and focused on the impact made in 17 categories measuring sustainability.

Established in 2019, THE Impact Rankings assess a university’s societal impact based on the UN’s SDGs, a set of goals outlining a universal call to action to protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.

Using carefully calibrated indicators across four broad areas – research, outreach, teaching, and stewardship – THE Impact Rankings are a recognition of those who are working today to build a better tomorrow.

Here at the BISC, we supported the university’s submission to the THE and were able to provide evidence against several of the criteria. The release of these rankings marks a significant moment for us too here at the BISC as we turn our thoughts to a post-pandemic world and how we as both an academic institution and a commercial entity, will meet the challenges ahead.      

For some months now, we have been looking at how we can align ourselves closer with the SDGs and how we will communicate this work to our applicants, students, staff, stakeholders and visiting public. The nature of the Estate, our location by the coast and our international recruitment profile mean that some SDGs, particularly those around the environment and climate action, inclusivity, and quality education, have real relevance to us. We are now looking at how we build a program of work to make a significant contribution to these.

Having traditionally relied on our stunning location as one of the primary drivers for students choosing to study at the BISC, it is interesting to note that the THE also released the results of a survey this week which that shows how international students are more likely to choose a university based on its commitment to sustainability than for its location. This shows the importance of communicating our work in these areas to prospective students and engaging them fully while here at the BISC.

We are implementing a new approach to the sustainable management of the Herstmonceux Castle Estate with a view to enhancing the Estate’s conservation. We have identified that these aims can be achieved through traditional seasonal conservation and natural grazing approaches.

We will do our utmost to ensure all aspects of the Estate's management deliver on the five key pillars of sustainability as we see them:

  • Protection, improvement and diversification of habitats and ecosystems.
  • An increased overall population of species diversity of flora and fauna.
  • The effective delivery of ecosystem services.
  • Creating a valuable educational resource.
  • Becoming a source of public interest and eco-tourism.

GardensThe Estate’s management will be led through a rewilding approach where practicable. This essentially means a return to how the land would have been managed in medieval times. Through appropriate fencing of the Estate, it is hoped that one of the key drivers in the Estate's management will be nature itself.

With appropriate use of grazing, careful introduction of specific livestock species and strict monitoring of stocking densities, we aim to replicate the work of now extinct or rare species which were once widespread throughout the UK. In an era when land management was not as commonplace, our environment was very much sculpted by such species, which happily co-existed with our native flora and fauna.

By re-introducing these species, we expect the ecosystem to subtly alter over time to replicate a mosaic of habitats that support a wide variety of species. Queen’s University has the unique opportunity to support this development in BISC and its property.

You can read more about the Castle’s rewilding plans in our Interview with Dr. Simon Coppard.

Back to School – business as usual, but not quite

This fall, the BISC followed Queen’s and many other higher education institutions around the world by providing 100% online programming. The prospect came with challenges academically of course, but as you will no doubt remember, the first step in the transition process from high school to Queen’s University is our Summer Orientation to Academics & Resources (SOAR) program. The Castle was tasked to provide bespoke resources to help prepare the class of 2024 for a completely new way of studying and experiencing university life. This was quite demanding given the unprecedented public health crisis, but faculty and staff at the BISC got stuck in with typical gusto!

A1 MYPIt is an ongoing challenge to be so remote from each other, but in these extreme circumstances, there is an increased danger of feeling disconnected as well. The BISC’s SOAR programming therefore focussed on putting faces to names and bringing students together (virtually at least) as much as possible to help build a sense of community spirit. For example, each member of the BISC faculty filmed a short ‘Meet your Prof’ video, where they introduced themselves and explained what they loved about teaching the course in their own words.

The initial icebreaker this summer was a virtual escape room, which was so well received that another will be run just as soon as we can come up with some more fiendishly cryptic clues! There was also a Netflix party, a virtual pub quiz and a virtual open mic at the Headless Drummer. Members of Student Services filmed themselves around the Castle grounds and at Bader Hall, to ground their various instructional videos in place, and remind everyone that our plan is, and remains, to have students physically at the BISC at some point in the near future.

As the fall term got underway, staff were encouraged to make short ‘BISC Tips’ videos to share with students, offering advice and practical tips about staying engaged and energised online. We have also continued to promote the BISC’s ethos of thinking locally and acting globally. Since the beginning of term, much of our Student Services programming has focussed on the theme of global citizenship. We have engaged students on the issue of sustainability through a documentary on plastics in our oceans, put together a series dedicated to celebrating and educating students on black leaders, talent, and history as part of Black History Month, and recently created online content revolving around anti-racism awareness.

A1 ArtWorld Mental Health Day was on Oct. 10, which the BISC celebrated through its Peer Health Educator Committee, who worked with students to spread kindness through chalk messages on sidewalks and driveways. The committee also hosted a series of lunchtime chats, where attendees prepared food and made connections over virtual lunch dates with their classmates.

With regards to adapting day-to-day academics and learning, the majority of the BISC’s classes are now taught online via Zoom and supported by a multitude of handy course materials that we host on the BISC’s OnQ platform. The Bader International Study Centre has a reputation for innovative experiential learning, active learning and off-site field studies. The challenge for our faculty now is to enhance, develop and deliver their courses in a virtual environment. A shining example is our Film prof, Dr. Robert Hyland, who has been using Google Cardboard to help reframe his course content using virtual reality. Indeed, many of our lecturers are taking the opportunity to use virtual tours and expedition apps to go a step further than conventional seminar-style learning, but Dr. Hyland has actually gone as far as developing his own 3D virtual reality content! You can take his fantastic 3D tour of the Castle yourself using the link in Building a virtual Castle community.

Our lecturers have scheduled online office hours, and we have established an online coaching and mentoring program, so students don’t miss out on the small groups and individual contact that are a feature of the traditional BISC experience. Students have also been encouraged to create a number of virtual study groups which have proven to be a great way to enhance learning, clarify course content, and meet classmates outside of regular lectures.

New this term, we also have the BISC Skills Award (BSA). The award is designed to help students get the most from co-curricular activities while enrolled with the BISC. Our BSA students are invited to work with a coach to improve not just their academic skills, but set goals and attend workshops that will contribute to their personal development - supporting their studies, advancing future career prospects and gaining skills they will need in order to embrace the future with confidence.

So, what of 2021? Well, the outlook is ever-changing of course, and we will continue to monitor public health and quarantine regulations as well as travel advisories. At this time, the BISC is putting plans in place to ensure a safe environment for all students, faculty and staff on the Castle campus. Parents and students were consulted at a recent town hall on Oct. 9. We made students aware of the current restrictions in place in England and advised them of what travel restrictions are in place in the UK and Europe. Given the widely publicized situation in the UK, including the unfortunate handling of quarantine procedures by some other universities, we have since come to the difficult decision to continue with our online programming into the Winter 2021 term.

A1 ZoomThis decision was not taken lightly. While it is certainly possible to manage the health and safety of our students and staff on our campus itself, we would undoubtedly not have been able to offer the experience students expect, or deserve from the BISC. The experiential and active learning on which we pride ourselves for example, would have been restricted to southern England, and the local area.

We will now instead focus our efforts on Summer 2021, when we hope to have seen the worst of the current crisis. For our part, as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, a number of precautionary measures will be implemented in order to ensure everyone’s health and safety on the BISC’s return to normal practice. This will include physical distancing and the wearing of appropriate PPE in classrooms and lab settings, and midterm and experiential learning trips being restricted to only those areas deemed safe by current travel restrictions.

There can be little doubt that there will be some tricky times ahead. The future though remains bright, despite the challenges of our immediate situation. As part of his Report on the Conversation with the Queen’s Community, Principal Patrick Deane reiterated recently that he hopes to see the BISC thriving on its own terms and fully integrated into his pan-university strategy for internationalization at Queen’s. We shall continue to prepare for the eventual re-opening of campus and the implementation of many exciting new teaching and research opportunities.

Bader International Study Centre
Herstmonceux Castle
Hailsham, East Sussex
United Kingdom, BN27 1RN
Phone: +44 1323 834444
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Undergraduate Admission and Recruitment
Gordon Hall, 74 Union Street
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
Canada, K7L 3N6
Phone: (613) 533-2218
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