A student’s guide to creating excursions: Interactive learning experience to open up unknown sides of Joensuu

People sitting around a table.

By Moritz Albrecht

When I started my geography studies at Basel University, excursions were my favourite style of learning. It enabled to get out of the classroom, get some first-hand experience and also gave a more realistic insight in what researchers do than the dry lectures inside. Additionally I deemed it more fun to hike, bike or travel through the surroundings to learn what’s going on in areas partially unknown to me than by listening to the mere description of these places. For my fortune, excursions, if long or short have a more important standing in German speaking geography than in Finland so we had a lot of those. While based on the core studies in my programme, most of these excursions had a physical geography focus (measuring rivers, digging soils, etc.) but we also learned about many cultural and social aspects in our nearby surrounding which were unknown to us despite our believe that we know “our” city. This was true for people from Basel itself as for me as an outsider.

When coming to Joensuu for my Master studies I was therefore a bit disappointed to find out that particular small and local excursions were not that much available here and were not a key part of the curriculum. Back in Basel we had an excursion book and had to fill 10-12 excursion days a year if I recall right (not included large mandatory excursions). However, since I was a foreigner in a new country with new things every day I did not bother much. Yet this changed when I started to have more own teaching some years ago. Since carrying out independent excursions within HiMa teaching seemed to be somehow complicated and if not tied to a course not rewarded with credits, I always thought it would be nice to offer some course for students at HiMa to take these things into their own hands. I still do assume students like to learn through excursions. This was the birth of the course “A student’s guide to creating excursions” at HiMa. So it only took me roughly 10 years to start something like that and in autumn 2018 we had our first course experience.

Together with my co-teacher Jani Karhu we managed to get even 6 students to join the course despite it’s out of curriculum character. While the course was challenging, particularly the timing issues I have to say I enjoyed it very much and from the feedback of students (see also below) they also had lots of fun and also learned a lot despite all the suffering under my leadership. The great thing in this course is that learning is not only restricted to learn about excursion methods, tools and how to develop an own excursion but that participants through the excursions, prepared by themselves and their peers, learned a lot of new things about their current home town of Joensuu and its socio-cultural happenings. The course consisted of introduction lectures, an excursion that presented many excursion methods in practice, a lot of group work, a tiny seminar and the final excursions guided by the students themselves. In the course the students had completely free hands in choosing their groups excursion topic, where they wanted to go and which excursion methods and tools to use. We separated the students in 2 groups with each 3 persons. Group 1 chose hidden poverty in Joensuu as their excursion topic while Group 2 decided to develop an excursion on soundscapes and the feeling of security in Joensuu by night.

People sitting around a table.
Picture 1. Students enjoying a blind honey tasting during an expert discussion on the example excursion.

After much group work, struggling with a never tested course and task description (will be improved for next autumn) both groups prepared excursions that were excellent learning tools and both could replace a whole lecture series on their topics. Not only did all of us learn a lot on excursion methods, practicalities on how to manage fieldwork and communicate with people but we also had lengthy discussions on ethical considerations, matters of social justice and realized that there are many faces of the place called Joensuu that we have been rather unaware of up to now. So, all in all, the course was a success on many levels and I hope that this text and the stories of the participants about the course will motivate more students to join us next semester to repeat this great experience. Also, as you should never trust the sweet words of a course teacher on his own course, below you can read up how some of our students have experienced the course.

Man beating a carpet.
Picture 2. Dr. Albrecht guiding students to work hard.

Suffering under Dr. Albrecht’s course

Team Hidden poverty

By Ville Tahvanainen

“Poverty is hidden like dust in the air.” This quote guided our theme to introduce hidden poverty in the city landscape. Theme was new for us, but at the same time very mysterious. To actually realize this issue, we decided to take the course participants to homeless people shelter and to see the “queue of bread”, where the local congregation shares food for those who feel they need it. Our excursion topic was ethically very demanding – how be enough sensitive to talk with the people who are facing hard time in their lives. How not judge people by their personal issues and so on.

At the homeless shelter organisation, we offered to help them with their weekly cleaning (see picture above). One of the challenging moment was, when an obviously narcotic man was sleeping in the room, which we had to clean. We did not want disturb and in the end he did not wake at any time when we were present, despite us cleaning. Still, overall atmosphere was very friendly and calm when dinner was collecting various kind of people together. The doors were open for all without any commitment or tasks.

Two people in an institutional kitchen.
Picture 3. Jani and Elisa were planning the dinner menu.

At the local congregation, we faced over 100 people queuing for food. We assembled a variety of food products (left overs with close or expired due date) from local markets into plastic bags. While collecting pieces of food into the bag, we made all the time analysis of the person – what would he or she eat? Questions of values were on mind constantly and you had to make quick decisions – others were waiting for their turn and food so that they could vanish away. The variation of people was amazing. From the appearance, you could not make any kind of conception on the personal situation or economic status.

Eventually the excursion opened a lot of discussion about social responsibility between individual and society. Some of the people were very satisfied with their situation and they even accepted it. However, for some it was a path, they did not choose to be in. Mental problems and narcotics may flip the life totally around. A matter what we were asking, why the third sector is providing help for those people? If we live in the welfare state, why subsidy is required to come from third parties?

The course was extremely helpful to build an excursion with interaction and to bring out matters, which are hidden in today’s society. Personally, I recommend this kind of participatory course for teachers to learn how to teach something, which brings lifelong experience and discussions on values more concrete than any lectures held in the classroom.

Team Soundscapes and security

By Anssi Huoponen

The lack of experiences about the planning of excursions was the reason which made me participate in the excursion course. The course was a fascinating learning process already from the beginning of the course when the groups were formed so that they included undergraduate students, graduate students, and postgraduate students in the same group. The planning process took off nicely, and we soon realized that the course is an opportunity to play with different kind of ideas and carry out excursion what you otherwise would seldom have the chance to do.

Our excursion to the soundscapes and feeling of security took place in late November at seven o’clock in the evening with blowing wind and cold weather. We had invited an expert from the city of Joensuu to tell us about how they try to promote the feeling of security in the centre of Joensuu. After this interview, we had a soundscape walk where we stopped for listening pre-recorded daytime soundscapes from the same places. This soundscape walk gave an opportunity to discuss how the soundscapes affect to the excursion participants feeling of security. In addition, we also visited a couple of different kind of bars where we discussed with the staff members how they feel the soundscapes of the bar affect the atmosphere. Moreover, we conducted interviews with customers. We let them listen to pre-recorded soundscapes from the forest and construction site and explain how they feel these soundscapes affect to them.

As a conclusion, the course taught a lot about how to plan and carry out excursions collaboratively. The course also gave change to examine and learn things what you would not normally consider in your daily life. Moreover, the course helped to understand that you would not learn these matters this good in the auditorium.

Looking for ways towards low-carbon societies

Landscape over a beach, town and hill side by side.

The European Commission is looking for cost-efficient ways to make the European economy more climate-friendly and less energy-consuming.

It all started with our idea of hopping on a European Commission’s roadmap to low carbon economy. Along with Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships program we had a chance to wrap up a project which would harness us, our partners and students to strive for more climate-friendly and less energy-consuming Europe in the future. In order to do that, we promised to canvass needs and means to improve the quality and relevance of the education in our higher education departments. Having succeeded in the applying process we were granted 315 000 € to be spent during the three academic years between 2015 and 2018 for the project called On the way towards a low-carbon society – Increasing professionalism in land use and landscape management within climate change (TowardsLCS).

After 7 live meetings in 5 countries, 3 pilot courses with 60 different students, 7 professors and 100-odd experts, and multiple working hours between the 3 universities and 6 working life partner organisations, it is time to close the project in the end of August.

People on a snowy hill.
Project partners on top of Koli National Park during Joensuu pilot course in 2018.
So what have we done?

In short, the goal of the project was to develop studies for the future low carbon land use planners and give some ready and easy-to-use tools for other institutions to enhance low carbon development. In order to fulfill this goal we promised to create an online study module about “low carbon basics”, collect a robust material pack to support the course and share the materials and course instructions on a study platform through an open access website.

What makes a good low carbon planner?

So the idea is to enhance low carbon development by improving the education of landscape and land use planners. Anyhow, no matter how extensive low carbon skills the fresh planners have, they cannot get their skills to the use of societies if they are not attractive for employers also in other ways. This is why at first we wanted to find out what makes a good low carbon planner.

People working together with a mind map.
Drafting competence analysis during kick off -seminar in Joensuu in 2015.

We made a survey to a wide variety of actors, asking them to value various sets of competences that might be important in the field. We received answers to the survey from Polish, Finnish and Catalonian representatives from research institutions, governmental agencies, NGOs, universities and young professionals. Detailed results are to be published in a separate article, but in the mean while you can find more information on this presentation.

From survey to results – how to teach these competences?

Having processed the main results, the first intensive course was designed and organised in order to test how to teach these valued competences. The first course in Poland was then followed by another two courses in Catalonia and Finland. During each “pilot course” different settings of learning conditions were tested (including the chosen low carbon topics, size of the working groups, both teaching and surveying methodology, reporting tasks, living conditions, surroundings & weather…). After each course students were asked to evaluate the course so that later pilot courses could be improved based on the experiences from the previous ones.

People on top of a green roof.
Students and professors on a green roof during pilot course held in 2016 in Poznań, Poland.
Gaining competences for students, professors and partners

Along with competence enhancement among students, it is quite evident that the project has been a specific learning experience for the participating professionals as well. Experience in working in an international (and –disciplinary) groups is one natural, but vital competence that everybody got their share of. Site/country-specific information about low carbon issues and good practices is another obvious gain. Furthermore, special attention was paid to different soft skills and especially to (social) media presence. This included workshops and tasks about different social media platforms, preparing videos and scientific posters, “pitching” and presenting oneself in general.

Landscape over a beach, city and a hill side by side.
Lloret de Mar – one of the study sites during the pilot course held in Catalonia in 2017.  (CC0)
On the way towards …?

It has been an intensive three years, but the road does not finish here. We will continue for a while more with processing experiences and completing articles based on the information that was collected, but even that does not bring a total end to the process. Like it is the case with so many projects, TowardsLCS reminds of the mythical dragon Hydra; you put into practice one idea but so many new ones arise. Cooperation between associates continues for sure, but to which direction, you can only wonder.

Whether you are interested in knowing more about TowardsLCS-project or the future co-operation, please do not hesitate to contact any of us.

TowardsLCS Joensuu team
Minna Tanskanen (Project leader)
Paula Inkeroinen (Project coordinator)
Anssi Huoponen (Project researcher)
Noora Rämö (Research assistant)
Email: firstname.lastname(at)uef.fi

Towards low carbon societies -logo.Erasmus+ logo.