Blog post by School of Education international student, Ahanah Bhatnagar.
Over this summer, Bristol University ran its first Widening Participation Research Summer Internship. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the internship transitioned to run virtually, which suited me perfectly well as I was based at my residence in Hong Kong. My research project was a qualitative pilot study, where I was assigned as a research associate to Dr Lucy Wenham as she is the School of Education Widening Participation Officer and this was the first WP intern in the School of Education.
Summer Internship at the University of Bristol
We researched Forest Schools, which are informal nature-based education institutions where practitioners do learner-led exploration, learning and investigations. Our research developed on what we found throughout on our journey, so we went into the project aiming to identify issues or gaps within the existing literature surrounding forest school education.
The internships were all scheduled for a period of six weeks. Dr Wenham and I partnered on this project by splitting up the time window into three two weeks ‘blocks’, where we would collaborate on one area of research for that allotted time frame. In these six weeks, we went through the whole research process.
In the first block, our primary focus was investigating the literature surrounding forest school education. During my weekly catch-up calls with Lucy, she directed me with guidelines on what one should be paying attention to when searching for credible research papers and materials.
These highly valuable insights are currently assisting me in compiling and completing the research for my dissertation as I can now easily identify credible sources.
Presenting my research
I presented my research, critiquing papers and presenting my thoughts on the area and angles that I found interesting. To date, we found that Forest Schools are predominately used in early years education; there is a research gap into the use of forest schools for imparting such information towards secondary school students.
We began to narrow our research topic by discussing the emotional and behavioural development of teenagers. We also looked into areas of mental health and vulnerability of this segment of students. Could forest school education be a beneficial platform for teenage students struggling in formal education settings?
In the second section of the internship, we focused on preparing our ethics forms, research methods and data collection methods. I was able to appreciate first-hand areas where one experiences critically thinking about ethics in educational research.
I worked with Dr Wenham to write up ethics and consent forms. This provided me with a valuable insight towards an appreciation into a researcher’s perspective and considerations such as researcher bias. I also had to account for issues relating to participants confidentiality and adapting to situations such as the ongoing pandemic, with regards to choosing which online platforms are the most secure.
I conducted semi-structured interviews during these weeks after receiving the participant’s consent. I transcribed the interviews after all of them were finished and learnt how to conduct thematic analysis. With Dr Wenham’s help, I was able to identify reoccurring patterns and one-off experiences which were mentioned and were important for future research. I identified themes including social skills which were enhanced due to forest school education, relationships being formed amongst the students and staff, a sense of freedom for the students who have previously been labelled and the ability to explore their identity.
The WP team ensured all the interns felt supported throughout the internship. Our coordinator, Alex had catch-up sessions and I appreciated the effort of the team to ensuring the interns had a sense of community and felt supported by one another during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex was also very accommodating since I was overseas in Hong Kong and was always willing to record meetings or re-arranging them so I could attend!
By the end of the six weeks, I had done literature reviews, written ethical and consent forms, planned and conducted semi-structured interviews, typed transcriptions and conducted thematic data analysis.
Since this project was going to be picked up by Lucy soon, I completed my sixth week of the internship by summarizing what I had found from the interviews, what themes and coding were coming forth and what we should consider researching if this project were to be delved into further and published.
Reflections on the Summer Internship
Throughout the internship, I augmented my skills, understood the research process and learnt a lot about forest schools which was an unknown facet to me before this experience. The reason why I wanted to take part in this internship is that I was certain that it would be an enriching and rewarding experience to have before finally immersing into writing my undergraduate dissertation.
I would recommend this internship to second-year students going into their final year if it continues to run in the upcoming summer. It is an amazing experience going through the whole research process while you have your supervisor supporting you throughout the way, giving you insights and intelligence from their research backgrounds!