Problem-based learning to sustain future forests

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A forest in Ghana. Credit: Bioversity International/C.Zanzanaini

Originally published at Bioversity International

David Boshier, Senior Research Associate at University of Oxford and Bioversity International Honorary Research Associate, and Judy Loo, Forest Genetic Resources Scientist at Bioversity International, editors of the Forest Genetic Resources Training Guide, invite university lecturers and students to put knowledge on forest genetic resources into action. As we near International Day of Forests, we decided to have a chat with them about why this Guide is important.

Q: Both of you have been working on the Forest Genetic Resources Training Guide (FGR Training Guide) for several years now. Can you tell us a little bit about what sparked the creation of this training guide and what makes it unique?

David Boshier (DB): About ten years ago, together with some ‘SEEDSOURCE’ project partners I was looking at what was happening in Central America in terms of capacity development in seed bank and tree germplasm collection. A large number of people within Central American seedbanks had received training a few years before and yet, when we started our project, almost none of them were there anymore. That made us think – how do you make capacity building sustainable, rather than having to repeat a training exercise every year for 20 years? Who are the people that stayed in their positions a long time? University lecturers! We started to think – if we actually start to work with university lecturers, and we get them to talk about forest genetic resources in their training, that knowledge will be sustained and passed on.

That is what led to the development of the Forest Genetic Resources Training Guide.

Judy Loo (JL): When I joined Bioversity International in 2009, I already knew about the FGR Training Guide because I had been invited to participate in training in Latin America where case studies were being tested. I was very intrigued, particularly as I had been periodically teaching short courses in Mexico on conservation genetics before joining Bioversity International.

I was excited by the approach taken in the development of Training Guide modules because to me it seemed to address several key concerns at once – first a way to expose non-specialists to the genetic principles that are important in forest management. Second, I, like many other scientists, have grappled with the problem of how to translate knowing into doing – turning research results into actions on the ground – and this approach to capacity development, using real cases based on research results, seemed to be a valuable step in the right direction. Third, the problem-based approach is a far better way of teaching practical applications than simply lecturing to students.
So I was inspired to keep developing the FGR Training Guide, adding modules and case studies, ensuring that it would be available in multiple languages, encouraging its use, and using it as a vehicle when possible, to move our own research results down the impact pathway.

Q: Are studies on forest genetic resources (FGR) integrated in university curricula or do you think that there is room for growth?

DB: We looked at teaching FGR within university curricula and what we found there was that, traditionally, it had been taught within forestry degrees, generally within the context of tree breeding, rather than a conservation aspect. We found that with changes in curricula, tree breeding and FGR had basically disappeared from many university curricula.

A lot of the teaching that involves FGR has moved over to biology degrees and that teaching is done from with a very molecular base focus and its done without the socioeconomic context – the practical context of the issues being relevant to day-to-day management situations. So it is taught very much from a research point of view – application of molecular tools to understanding the biology of forests and trees, rather than being applicable to day-to-day management and conservation of resources.

The FGR Training Guide takes the problem-based approach. Rather than looking at the particular genetic issues and frightening people off with a load of equations at the start of a textbook it says: “What are the management/conservation problems that have genetic resource aspects to them and how do we use genetic information to address them?”

If we think about the problems that the modules deal with, we talk about ecosystem and forest restoration, selective logging and the issues of fragmentation, conservation and value of trees outside of forests, trees used in agroforestry systems by farmers, how do you develop a conservation strategy for a threatened tree species and what are the genetic aspects involved in that. Also community tree nurseries where communities are involved in planting trees…how do you ensure the genetic diversity of the material that is used in these nurseries and why is it important?

All of the FGR Training guide modules and the case studies in those modules are based on research. What we try to do is show the link between basic research to actual practical applications, and we give the socioeconomic context to the genetic research.

Q: What are your hopes for the FGR training guide and its users?

JL: My hope is that the Training Guide will help bring genetic considerations into mainstream management and conservation of trees, including in forest landscape restoration, selective timber harvesting in tropical forest concessions, management of non-wood forest products, protected area management and tree nurseries. This would go a long way towards ensuring that treed ecosystems will maintain the resilience needed to adapt to changing climates and that forest resources will be sustained for future generations.

DB: What I hope is that it will get used. Later this year I’m training 20 lecturers in Chile on the teaching resources of the FGR Training Guide and how they might want to use them in classes. My hope is that we reach people as high as forest managers, people who would end up working in conservation and restoration so that they recognize that there are genetic aspects to these issues. They don’t have to become geneticists but the aim is that they will realize that there is a genetics issue so that they can understand when there are problems, when they might be genetic rather than ecological, or with regeneration. So that they understand the importance of genetic diversity – the resilience of trees and forests and the potential to adapt to climate change and other conditions.


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