With a little help from my friends

Attendees on the 2015 Soil Mesofauna course.

One of the things which Tom.bio is interested in is how people can be supported in the weeks, months and even years after they attend a training course. Attendees on biological identification courses typically spend a few very intensive days learning about a new species group, building new skills and making new contacts. But all too often once the course ends, that new enthusiasm and knowledge can be lost due to a lack of follow up events or on-going support. This is particularly the case when the identification in questions is very difficult, and/or needs specialist expensive equipment such as compound microscopes – many people simply don’t have regular access to such facilities.

Soil mesofauna course 2015.  Photo: C Bell Back in March, we supported the delivery of a four day Soil Mesofauna course – mainly focussed on the identification of springtails and mites. The course was well attended with people from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience, and was delivered by some top experts. Both Rich and I took part as attendees ourselves. It was a very enjoyable, albeit challenging, few days – you can read more about it in my previous blog.

A couple of months ago we realised that we needed to ‘up-skill’ ourselves in terms of mite and springtail ID. It was already three months since the course, and we hadn’t looked at a mite or a springtail since. We’re not looking to become experts, but if we’re going to arrange more Soil Mesofauna courses in the future, we feel we need to develop enough expertise to be able to offer more support to both tutors and attendees.

The Invertebrate Challenge room.It’s a busy world, and unfortunately there’s no shortcuts to developing ID skills – practice and experience are non- negotiable!  But since June we’ve made a real effort to make time to do some Soil Mesofauna ID.  We’re lucky that, at Preston Montford, we have access to the Invertebrate Challenge room, microscopes and library, a legacy of the hugely successful Invertebrate Challenge project which finished last year. Incidentally, the Invertebrate Challenge facilities and library are available for use by anyone who want to use it for biological identification purposes – if you would like to do this, please contact Rich or myself to book the room.

We’ve started with springtails, and made the decision to both work on the same specimens so that we can compare identifications. They’re a tricky group, and at the moment new specimens can take us the best part of an hour to identify – not only do we have to become familiar with springtail anatomy, but we also have to learn to manipulate them on microscope slides in order to see the feature required by the key. It feels like a real achievement when, after ages staring down the microscope and fiddling around with cover slips, we both arrive at the same identification! And, when we get to different places, backtracking through the key together and working out where and why we went wrong is a great learning technique.

Springtail Entomobrya nicoleti.  Photo: C BellHaving this peer support is invaluable to building confidence and, for me, has made the world of springtails a lot more accessible and enjoyable. Another advantage of this way of working is the routine and impetus it gives – on occasions where, individually, we might decide there were more pressing things to do, the fact that we’ve both set aside the time to do it means we’re more likely to stick to our plan and spend a few hours in the lab!

We’ve taken these lessons to heart and hope to host some events over the winter where past attendees on Soil Mesofauna courses can come together and practice some ID alongside their peers. People will be able to check each other’s’ identifications and share helpful tips, and discuss things they are struggling with. This won’t be a ‘training course’ as such, but simply a couple of days where we make the facilities and equipment at Preston Montford available and allow people to build on their existing Soil Mesofauna skills in a supportive environment. Hopefully we’ll have some experts on hand to answer questions, and maybe by that point Rich and I will be able to help a little too! Watch this space…

Peer support doesn’t necessarily have to mean sitting in the same room as someone else. Social media is a fantastic way of connecting with the biological recording community at all levels, from beginner to expert. I’m a member of various Facebook groups related to natural history and biological recording, where people can post photos of things they can’t identify, or pose ID related questions. Twitter is also great, and I use it for moths – I follow the hashtag #TeamMoth, where people post photos of moths both identified and unidentified, and the ‘TeamMoth’ community confirms identification.  What's good about social media is that you can see the conversation trails - and therefore see other people being unsure, or even getting it wrong - most encouraging for a novice!

Moth man Robin helps out myself and Sue with some moth IDRelated to peer support is the concept of mentoring. I’ve written previously about my burgeoning interest in moths and spiders, and am incredibly lucky that I have various people who are kindly helping me develop my skills and knowledge relating to these two groups – thank you Robin and Paula (moths), and Rich and Nigel (spiders). A formal mentoring system is sometimes lacking from national recording schemes, although various citizen science schemes, for example the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS), are now building it into their protocol.

This concept of peer support and mentoring is hugely important. In my opinion:

learning alongside an enthusiastic mentor is the best way to develop knowledge & enthusiasm – practising alongside a peer is the best way to maintain it!
Over the next couple of years Tom.bio will be exploring this concept more, and hopefully working with various groups and recording schemes to help build the use of peer support and mentoring.