18 September 2014

Fifty years after Lancaster University was the first in the UK to offer a course in Environmental Sciences, 18 of the original students return to celebrate

“I was offered a place to study Geography at Sheffield University, but I really wanted to do something different, where I could drop the bits of Geography that didn’t work for me and focus on the bits I liked,” said Dave Kerr, who organised the reunion.

“It was called Environmental Studies to begin with and we were told that we were going study everything in the world around us. And that’s what we did. It was all the earth sciences tucked together - meteorology, geo-morphology, geology, environment, bio-geography and hydrology. And I loved it.”

Dave, who spent many years working in oil exploration, had kept in touch with eight or so of the 29 students who began the course in1964 and 1965, the first two years of the University’s existence. He used his hobby of genealogy to track down most of the rest and persuaded 18 to come to the University’s 50th anniversary celebration, from as far away as Vancouver and Australia.

Reminiscing about the past

“Professor Gordon Manley was our professor at that time, a climatologist, and a first rate researcher. He lectured on historical changes in climate, I still look over the notes of his lectures today.”

Current staff at the Lancaster Environment Centre provided a special tour and lunch for the former students and for two of the original staff, Professor Frank Oldfield MBE, and Dr Ada Phillips, who is still involved in the department today.

It was the surveying techniques we learned that got me into seismology.  Frank got me and many others interested in the holocene period and pollen anlysis

There was a lot that had changed in the 50 years. In 1964 there were 340 students in the whole university, now there are 215 in Environmental Science alone.  The campus wasn’t finished, so the students were based in Lancaster and they boarded in Morecambe. They wore gowns around town and there were no clubs and societies, so they had to set them up themselves. “We were pioneering Lancaster University and the new subject at the same time,” Dave said.

The importance of field work

But some things hadn’t changed. The emphasis on fieldwork, and on practical researching skills alongside theoretical work.

“Lancaster was the ideal place to do fieldwork, because it has such variety of landscape - the River Lune, the salt marshes, Abbeystead Moor.  We explored it on our own as well as during field trips.

“One of our group, Clive Champion, is a brilliant geologist who got a fossil named after him. I remember when we were out once he brought out his geological hammer and chipped away. Holding a piece of rock in his hand he said here’s the zone fossil, which identified the age of the landscape.So we learnt a lot from each other too.”

Providing career opportunities

“Most of the students are now retired but they have clearly had a range of interesting careers, at least some springing directly from the degree course,’ said Dr Ada Pringle. “They shared warm memories of the small embryo department and the high regard they had for Professor Gordon Manley who founded it with such foresight.”

Dave believes it was the mix of theoretical and practical work that started him in his career in oil exploration, taking him to the deserts of Libya and Saudi Arabia.

“It was the direct result of my doing a bit of levelling on the salt marsh. When I went for my interview I was asked if I had ever done any surveying and I talked about the levelling work. That got me the job.”

Professor Kevin Jones, who guided the former students around the Lancaster Environment Centre, was impressed by their enthusiasm for the University and their subject, and by the wide range of work they had done.

“Our ‘pioneers’ were excited to come back,” said Kevin. “Their careers and lives had taken them all over the world. I was impressed to see how their education at Lancaster had given them such a  wide range of opportunities.”

Dave was struck by the even greater opportunities on offer in the Department today.

Biology is part of the department now, as are social sciences so there are opportunities to study aspects of the environment that we could never have done in our day.”

The other big change the visitors noticed is the department’s excellent links with business. “Ours was a practical degree but not put to practical use, put into industry,” Dave explains. “Now students have the chance to work with an organisation that needs a research project done.  If we could have done that, it would have been great.

“We all came away convinced that we would like to come back and do the course all over again.’

Find out more about studying Environmental Science at Lancaster