by Christine Heidinger (University of Vienna, Austria)
On the 1st of June 2016 approximately 70 people met in the festival hall of the oldest grammar school in Vienna, the Academic Gymnasium. Among the participants were school students, scientists from the field of limnology, experienced biology teachers as well as novice teachers and teacher educators. This highly diverse group of people came together at a mini-congress entitled “The Danube River – conflicts over use”. All participants have worked in one form or another on the topic “conflicts over use at rivers” for the last semester and now was the time to exchange insights and approaches around the shared topic.
This congress was the closing event to three teacher professional development (TPD) courses which were developed and implemented during the summer semester 2016 within the PARRISE: A TPD course for in-service teachers and one for pre-service teachers, between the University of Vienna and another TPD course for pre-service teachers at the Pedagogical University in Lower Austria.
The congress began with a keynote from Fritz Schiemer, who is a limnologist from the University of Vienna. In his talk Fritz Schiemer introduced the participants to the history of the Vienna Danube, which can be read as a 150-year-long conflict over use. In former times the Vienna Danube was an eight kilometre wide wetland comprising of a patchwork of numerous streams meandering through today’s city area. But major floods ever since threatened the Viennese population and as soon as the technical progress allowed for it, extensive flood-control engineering (dams and levees) led to the first regulation of the Vienna Danube in 1870. Land reclamation, requirements of inland navigation and the need for energy via hydropower led to further straightening and damming of the river.
Nowadays the Danube, like all other major European rivers, is highly regulated with hardly any adjacent floodplains left. This has a major impact on the ecosystem of the Danube. The key factor determining the ecology of large rivers and their adjacent floodplains is the high hydrological connectivity between the two compartments which is strongly reduced in case of straightening and damming. Since the 1980s , restoration projects, therefore, seek for solutions to restore the damaged or destroyed ecosystems of rivers and floodplains. But restoration projects harbor considerable conflict potential as Fritz Schiemer experienced himself. He gave the example of a restoration project for the free-flowing stretch of the Danube near Vienna. A multi-disciplinary team consisting of ecologists, hydrologists, waterway operators and representatives of the city administration argued for three years until they finally came up with a compromise which satisfies the needs of the Danube ecosystem, as well as the requirements of the shipping industry.
In the second part of the congress a poster session was staged. Novice teachers presented their teaching approaches on the topic “The Danube River – conflicts over use” and discussed them with the other participants at the congress. The development of the teaching approaches took place in two teacher professional development courses at the University of Vienna and at the Pedagogical University in Lower Austria. The novice teachers worked for one semester on knowledge about river ecosystems, on historical and present conflicts over use at the Vienna Danube and their ecological impacts. With the help of the SSIBL framework they developed teaching approaches which strive to bring these topics to biology classes. As part of their lesson plans the novice teachers chose an interesting and captivating topic for students, developed students activities for a stakeholder analysis and the mapping of the controversy. Thanks to experienced biology teachers who were willing to invite pairs of novice teachers to their biology classes, the novice teachers were able to try out their teaching units in class. Students from one of these classes, from the upper secondary school “Gym Tulln”, also participated in the congress. They worked with two novice teachers form the University of Vienna on the ecosystem of a little river which flows near their school building, called “Kleine Tulln”.
The students studied the water quality by leading organisms at two sections of the river: a natural and denatured section. The students discerned different stakeholders which declare specific interests in the river (farmer, population: flood control) and related it to problems for the river’s ecology.
At the conclusion of the event, a discussant from each participant group was invited to share his/her impressions from the mini congress with the other participants. Fritz Schiemer and Günther Pass spoke for the group of scientists. They both were impressed by the diversity of the projects presented by students and novice teachers and they also praised the authenticity regarding the ecological content and applied methods. The scientists highly recommended sharing the developed lesson plans with the community of biology teachers in Vienna. Lisa Maria Reiss spoke for the novice teachers and she emphasized the value of the congress as an exchange forum to share and discuss different teaching approaches with peers, students, teacher educators and scientists. A student from an upper secondary school in Vienna gave insights into the students’ view on the congress. He said that it was interesting to see what their peers in other schools did in their projects. In general, it was fun for him to participate in the congress. Markus Gruber, an experienced biology teacher, told the audience that he enjoyed being part of this big teacher professional development initiative. He benefited from the scientific input of experts, from the new pedagogical approaches from the PARRISE project and the fresh impetus of the young colleagues who tried out their lesson plans in one of his classes. We, the teacher educators, who were the organizers of this event, concluded the congress with our statements. We were impressed by the lively and interested exchange between the quite diverse actors of this event and were happy that such a fruitful event brought an intense semester of joint hard work to a close.