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Roaming free despite a walking impediment

A team from the Department of Geobotany has developed barrier-free excursions for biology students

Freiburg, Sep 04, 2020

If you want to study biology, you have to go out into nature a lot: up the mountain, over steep gravel paths or through the thicket of a forest. Excursions in which students identify plants themselves, for example, are part of obtaining course credits. But what if someone is in a wheelchair or depends on crutches? A team from the Freiburg Department of Geobotany has developed a barrier-free award-winning tour.

Ever since her operation went awry, Anna Stölting has been dependent on a leg splint. Due to her limited mobility, the geobotany team came up with the idea for developing a suitable excursion. Photo: Ingeborg F. Lehmann

Anna Stölting feels the bark of the tree and looks closely at the leaves. What is their relationship to each other? At first glance she doesn’t see any fruits, only ivy, which grows upwards at the foot of the trunk. “Clearly a beech,” says Stölting and laughs. Because the student has long since completed such identification campaigns like the one here in the Freiburg Botanical Garden. She has her Bachelor’s degree in biology and is now doing her Master’s in neurobiology.

The Faculty of Biology at the University of Freiburg made it possible, thanks to its openness and willingness to try out something new. After a failed operation four years ago, Stölting is now dependent on a splint on her left leg and is therefore restricted in her mobility. At that time, she was studying geosciences at another university and wanted to become a volcanologist. “The university thought that it would be difficult with my sick leg,” recalls Stölting, “I couldn’t take part in excursions that would be necessary for my bachelor’s degree.” She looked for an alternative and found it during her biology studies in Freiburg. “Here I was welcomed with open arms.”

“A bit of enlightenment”

The first reaction to Stoelting’s request for handicapped accessible excursions was a resounding yes. “We asked ourselves why it shouldn’t be possible for someone with a mobility restriction to be able to study here,” remembers Alexandra Böminghaus, technical assistant at the Institute of Biology II, Department of Geobotany. But the devil is in the details: the more the team thought about the implementation, “the more we started to wonder and were quite surprised at what actually does not work. An uneven terrain on which no wheelchair can move; a grid in the ground over which it is difficult to walk with a crutch; a slightly sloping gravel path on which someone with an unsteady step could quickly slip. During excursions, that means walking for a longer time in sometimes difficult terrain, the flora is not always easy to reach. Mobility is the basic requirement. Everyone who wants to complete their biology studies must complete some of these excursions as a part of their course performance.

"For us Anna Stölting’s request was a bit of an enlightenment. We noticed that we have an enormous need for action if we want to offer barrier-free excursions,” says Böminghaus. It was clear from the beginning that they wanted to create the opportunity. “Otherwise we might deprive ourselves, without meaning to, of good people who become great researchers and teachers.” It was also just as clear that it could not be an alternative for students with physical disabilities to sit in front of a monitor and determine plants via photos and videos. They should be able to go out and explore biotopes just like everyone else.

New tour, but not completely new territory: Alexandra Böminghaus (left) has benefited from her experience in implementing GPS-supported individual excursions. Photo: Ingeborg F. Lehmann

Finding the right learning locations

A decisive tip on how this could work came from Beate Massell, the representative for students with disabilities or chronic illness. She recommended that the team work on different modules so that everyone could choose learning locations that suited their individual needs. The student representation at the University of Freiburg financed the concept’s development through the student proposal budget.

Then they got down to work. The team clarified the modalities for the catalog of services with various departments at the University and Anna Stölting gave tips on what to look out for in new learning locations. Is it possible to travel this route with a wheelchair? Is the gradient too steep? Is there the possibility to rest on a bench? Are there public bathrooms nearby? The goal was always to show the students typical textbook habitats. “Sometimes you have to forget such an idea altogether,” says Stölting. For example, if a Feldberg biotope is only accessible via a small rocky path.

“Students can now choose freely from a total of 14 different learning modules, some of which are mandatory,” explains Alexandra Böminghaus. A certain number of points is assigned to each of the individual modules; at the end a minimum number of points must be achieved. Most modules are for excursions. This means that a location in the city or its immediate vicinity is reached by public transport. All of them have level ground and are easily accessible by wheelchair, and often there is a bathroom facility nearby. With the help of a GPS device, the students search for the given coordinates and solve tasks with the help of a script, for example, classic determination tasks. “We profited from our experiences with the conversion of GPS-supported single excursions, which we offer as geocaching route, if students cannot participate in normal group excursions,” adds Böminghaus. And the Freiburg geobotanists have also found a solution for Feldberg. The place of learning comes along as a “handout,” in which for example typical plant species in a high moor are gathered in the form of a herbarium.

A tour around Lake Flückinger

“Thanks to the new model, I was able to complete my Bachelor’s degree in the standard period of time,” says Anna Stölting. “I realized that I can do a lot more than I thought I would be able to do at home with my leg splint.” The student was so motivated by the new opportunities that she even designed her own excursion for people with limited mobility: a trip around Lake Flückiger in the western part of Freiburg.

Alexandra Böminghaus would like to further develop the new model. “Especially in the field of digitalization there are opportunities that we are not yet using. I can imagine sound recordings of certain living spaces, for example, instructional videos or even an app with which students can be given tasks on site and enter the solutions directly,” says Böminghaus. The “barrier-free excursions” project has already been awarded the "Teaching Innovation Award” at the University of Freiburg. “But the best thing about it,” says Alexandra Böminghaus, “is that we too have rethought many things and overcome barriers in our minds.”

Claudia Füßler