Posted: 16 August, 2023

Ecologist in Residence. We interview Dr Helen Miller

Blog, BREATHE, Careers, Community, Ecology, Guests, Interview, Junior School, Senior School, Sixth Form, STEAM, STEM

When did you become the Ecologist in Residence at Putney High School? 

I started my role as Ecologist in Residence in January 2023. 

What attracted you to the role? 

I have been a STEM Ambassador for a number of years and seen how students benefit from and enjoy the surprises of the natural world once that world has been opened up to them. It seemed a great proactive approach to helping engage students with their local environment and to build on what I do as a STEM Ambassador.  

Ecology is very much a cross curricular subject which, with the right tools, can be brought into other subjects very successfully.


What is your background / how did you get into your career? 

When choices were there, throughout my education I simply chose subjects that I enjoyed. I certainly didn’t have a predetermined career path and ecology as a career (other than as an academic) didn’t exist when we had career talks at school.  Even after leaving university I didn’t really know what jobs were out there so I pretty much fell onto a career path! 

There was an ad on the Lancaster University Ecology Society Noticeboard towards the end of the summer term of my 2nd year asking if anyone wanted to volunteer over the summer in the New Forest with Forest Enterprise (now Forestry England).  I didn’t hesitate and rang up; a week or so later I was sharing an unfurnished house with two students from Canada and two other students who had just graduated from Lancaster.  

Over the course of the summer I mapped mire systems, located and mapped black bog ant colonies and did surveys for a pilot project on using woodland flora to help determine which timber trees would be most appropriate to plant.  The five of us had a lot of fun that summer and four of us are still in contact and have remained in the forestry/ecology sector, be that in France, Canada or the UK.  

Following that summer, the head of Ecology for Forest Enterprise offered me an initially voluntary job once I graduated the following year which lead onto my first paid job… surveying ancient woodlands across the England. Over the next 2-3 years I surveyed and mapped about 400-500 woodlands.

What was it that set you on a path to becoming an Ecologist? 

I have always been interested in wildlife so I think I was always going to end up in a career that reflected that. Once I had learned my spellings and times tables, on the daily dog walk before school I was wanting to know and learn the different plants and birds.  

While my friends had pop star posters on their bedroom walls, I had posters of badgers.  Many had careers aspirations while I didn’t really have any clue other than I wanted to be outside working with nature and enjoying what I did.  

Why do you think it is important for students to have an education in ecology / environment etc.? 

Having an education in ecology/the environment can open many future doors in life.  The students don’t have to follow it through to a career to benefit…it can open doors to wonder, exploration, escapism. It will help them read the landscape when out hiking so avoiding getting stuck in a bog. 

Ecology has influences in many other disciplines, e.g. many medicines today have their origins in plants or studying ants can help understand traffic jams, the kingfisher inspired the design of the Japanese Bullet Trains. So a good grounding in ecology could help the students in many different careers as well as an appreciation of the world around them and the potential harm that people can do to their environment   

The global impact of climate change is talked about a lot, do you think that we focus enough on our local environment? What can we all do to closer to home? 

There is a lot of ‘doom and gloom’ across all media platforms about the environment and often presented in a way that doesn’t give much hope for generations to come. Climate change isn’t new, although certainly it is now better understood. There is no denying global changes are happening and by no means should we be putting our heads in the sand about it, but it is by understanding the foundations and local environment that the bigger problems can be addressed, and solutions found. 

Several of the Ecology Mini Challenges I have set the students and staff during my time as Ecologist in Residence were part of wider national projects. These projects use data and knowledge on the local scale to help understand how changes in climate are changing the natural world on a larger scale. It is also important to enjoy the local environment, appreciate the benefits… this will help protect it into the future.  Human nature is to protect what gives us joy! 

Wild Flower Border

Wild Flower Border

What are the projects you have been doing at the school? 

Initially there were four key projects  

  1. Cross curriculum integration – a collection of resources for teachers
  2. Phenology Project – a long-term project the students can continue into the future and which supports a nationwide long-term study of seasonal changes and weather.
  3. Wildlife Biodiversity Challenge – an interhouse/school challenge to increase the biodiversity within the school… hopefully leading to an RHS School Gardening Award.
  4. Bat evening – an introduction to bats.

As these developed they overlapped with and contributed to the four main project elements

  1. Mini-Ecology Challenges – 16 Ecological Mini Challenges were set to encourage students to engage with the natural world.  Where possible these linked to national projects and ‘real science’ to add an extra dimension of engagement and sense of purpose.  These challenges were also geared towards helping the school archive the RSPB Wild Challenge Awards
  1. Tree Trail with QR Codes – A selection of trees, both native and introduced, were identified across the school grounds and mapped as a trail around the school to help students engage with the natural environment on their own campus. The trail also links into other academic subjects. Each tree will have a purpose made label depicting the English name, Scientific name and a unique QR Code. The QR code, when scanned, takes the student or school visitor to a set of dedicated pages on Firefly. 
  1. Ecology Noticeboard – an Ecology poster has been created for the Ecology Noticeboard that draws all the projects together with ‘blanks’ where the students can add their own observations about ecology within the school grounds, or a fun ecological fact they have discovered. I hope these ‘blanks’ will help keep the noticeboard fresh and keep students engaged in the subject. 

What value / lessons can students learn from these? 

I hope that through engaging in the projects over the last seven months the students will have connected with their local environments. I also hope that the teachers have been inspired and given ideas as to how they can integrate ecological concepts into other academic subjects in the future. 

What is coming up? 

Bat night in September. Our bat detectors have shown us that there are bats on site so as the days shorten and the evenings draw in, we look forward to students having the opportunity to observe them. 

An automated weather station is hopefully going to be purchased once technical considerations have been resolved. This will connect with our phenology project and enable biological data to be linked to seasonal weather conditions. 

How can these things be embedded for the future once your residency is over? 

I have compiled resources and lesson plans along with web links to reputable organisations that have curriculum related resources, live webcams of a suite of different animals and habitats, data from real ecological research, national citizen science projects … all of which can be used in a number of different lessons/subjects. I hope that this will be a valuable resource for teachers to use across different lessons to integrate ecological concepts and knowledge into everyday subjects for the whole school. 

Although the Ecology Mini Challenges were largely date specific for 2023 they can be used again in future years as focal points for projects in other lessons. 

The QR Coded Tree Trail has been designed to enable to students to research the trees and add information, pictures, stories or poetry (indeed anything they wish!) relating to the tree going forward.  

The Ecology Notice Board has also been designed to encourage students to observe and record natural history within the school grounds and have a space to communicate their findings to their fellow students.  

The Gardening Club are now taking ownership of our Phenology Project and it is hoped that the club members will continue to record things like first leaf burst, first flower etc. in years to come. Some of the trees are included within the QR Coded Tree Trail giving all students the opportunity to observe and record the changing seasons.   

Over time the school will have its own long-term weather and biological set which can be used for studying the climate and seasons.  

The Biodiversity Challenge Gardens will continue to thrive and develop over the years and provide focal points for biodiversity recording and monitoring. Both topics are covered by the curriculum in both junior and senior school lessons. 

What has been your impression of the students at Putney? What have you most enjoyed about your time with us? 

Certainly, Putney students are keen and have enquiring minds… always good characteristics for future ecologists if they choose that direction in life!   

I have enjoyed developing ‘keys’ and opportunities to unlock the natural world for students. I hope they have enjoyed discovering nature on their doorsteps in a fun way and realise the future isn’t perhaps as bleak and devoid of nature as they may perceive from media outlets… there is still a lot of wildlife out there to see and find out about! 

Senior Gardening Club
Senior Gardening Club
Junior Snail Feeding
Junior Snail Feeding
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