The value of first-hand experience and field work

Repowering London Solar Panels
Copyright: Shannon Marie Harmon

Speed read

  • Repowering London promotes solar energy in London’s poor communities
  • To really see the value of such work, on-the-ground reporting is indispensable
  • As we define the post-2015 agenda, linking abstract ideas with experience is key

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A picture is worth a thousand words, and a day in the field a thousand days spent reading about those issues.
The UK’s capital city is not exactly known for sunshine or social deprivation. Quite the contrary — London averages about 1400 hours of sunshine a year, lower than many northern European cities, and is one of the world’s wealthiest and culturally most vibrant cities. Yet much like other big cities around the world, it faces challenges of energy sustainability and striking levels of inequality. These challenges meet in the concept of energy poverty — loosely defined as poor access to affordable and adequate energy from clean sources.

Colleagues and I recently met with Repowering London, a community-based organisation working to promote local solar power in some of the city’s deprived neighbourhoods. And what I learned in just half a day with the organisation, I could never have learned through years of reading about solar panels.

How we gather knowledge in education, journalism and research can shape how we understand and interact with the world.

Learn by doing

The experience of learning by doing, learning by seeing how things work in practice or learning by talking to people who work on the ground, is one I have had many times in other parts of the world. But having that experience close to home, without the excitement of delving into unfamiliar environments, has underscored its immense power to make a difference in how we understand the planet’s most pressing problems.

At the heart of it was Repowering London’s workshop on how to make a solar panel. It struck me that soldering solar cells together and assembling a panel was a world away from writing about renewable energy technology and policy.

As an editor, I don’t necessarily need to know how to make a panel to write or edit articles about solar energy. But there is something about first-hand experience of those building blocks that matters — it connects the physical world that we all interact with to a more abstract understanding of processes and ideas.

Out in the field

Nir Orion wrote about exactly this principle in an opinion article about science education earlier this year. Based on many years of experience and research on outdoor learning, Orion makes a powerful case for fundamentally changing the education system so it taps into students’ natural learning instinct. More broadly, this model of education is often referred to as experiential or constructivist learning.

“There is room to make the real world experience that brings access to stories a more central part of education, research and journalism in science and social development.”

Anita Makri, SciDev.Net

One doesn’t even need to go as far as calling for an overhaul of education. A bit of experience can go a long way to show students the value of seeing how things work in the real world.

Universities can take small steps to help nurture that appreciation. The School of Field Studies, with which I studied in Costa Rica as part of my undergraduate degree at Clark University in the United States, is one example of the kinds of programmes that universities can support to help develop this instinct. A policy that counted the field work towards graduation requirements was crucial to making this work for me. The university promotes such learning in other ways too — through, for example, a programme that offers opportunities to engage with the local neighbourhood around the campus.

Really learning first hand what sustainability looks like in one country or neighbourhood has value beyond any traditional coursework.

A first-hand account

It’s also true that the world of scientific study and ideas is hardly ever enough: people and policy are essential for understanding and changing how we live.

The day with Repowering London began with a tour of one of three solar energy installations set up in a residential housing estate. The project works as a cooperative: people from the community invest what money they can to finance the project; the NGO then provides technical, financial, legal and administrative help to make it happen.

We heard that the power generated by the panels feeds straight into the national grid. The money it receives in exchange provide both a return for investors and financial support for community education to alleviate energy poverty in the area. Education extends to technical skills too: young people can get involved through internships, and engineers can get training in solar panel installation.

COO Afsheen Kabir Rashid says that government policy makes a big difference to the viability of such schemes. Regulations and feed-in tariffs tend to change almost yearly, for example, making it difficult to get projects off the ground, and the government now plans to cut back subsidies for small-scale solar farms.

Nevertheless, Rashid sees decentralised energy systems with a mix of sources as the way to a future of affordable renewable energy.

Although these are familiar concepts, there is something more concrete to be gained from a first-hand account and by seeing how such a system might work in practice.

Value of stories

This is one reason why journalists talk to experts and practitioners with field experience for their articles on a regular basis, and it is why on-the-ground reporting is irreplaceable.

Here are two examples from my own experience, which wouldn’t have surfaced had I not been in the field. Firstly, it is clear that the impact on informal communities and links with climate policy are two aspects of waste management in Delhi that I only discovered by spending time with the people working on these issues in India.

Similarly, the details of how traditional knowledge of potato varieties is combined with scientific techniques in Peru’s Potato Park to adapt to climate change emerged after I spoke at length with the people who manage those resources in their day-to-day life and work.

Even if they are steeped in the subjective, stories or case studies offer a link between our own and others’ experience or ideas. At their best, they transcend the subjective and touch on bigger themes that help us understand the world. And they are a powerful way of grounding in reality ideas and frameworks built in the abstract — a sobering thought in the year that will define global agendas in development and climate policy.

Although field work is a big part of teaching and research in some international development programmes, there is room to make the real world experience that brings access to such stories a more central part of education, research and journalism in science and social development. It needn’t take large investments, but targeted opportunities. We can only benefit from a larger pool of knowledge tested against the experience of practitioners, and the daily challenges of the citizens it’s meant to serve.