by Aneliya Paneva and Maximillian Scharf
The initiative of the PhD Council aimed at offering a communication platform for PhD candidates across the different faculties and disciplines in some form of recreational and leisure activity that promotes learning for sustainability. We used the bicycle tour as a way to discover Lower Saxony and become familiar with innovative ideas and sustainability-related problems in the region. A second implicit goal was to establish the tour as a recurring event and build a framework for easier organization of following biking tours. Last but not least, through this activity, we attempted to advertise the work of the PhD Council and attract new members.
Project planning and preparations
The organization of the project started in the summer of 2022 with the help of Lea Langhauser, who was employed for three months as a project assistant. Her task was to collect relevant connections and locations for the biking tour and to perform a study on the wishes of the PhD students for joint activities. In addition to that, she completed a small-scale literature review assignment, which demonstrated the relevance and usefulness of informal learning processes for developing key competencies for sustainable development in higher education. We received very positive feedback from the survey respondents, based on which we estimated a group of 30 participants for the tour. The outcome of the survey was used to design the biking tour after the employment of Lea Langhauser was terminated.
A team of 3-5 new volunteers willing to take part in the planning stage got together. The team met monthly to agree on the program, attract funding, and design posters and flyers for the event. A ‘save the date’ mail was sent to all PhD students on February 20th well before the event (9th to 11th June). Two months before the start of the biking tour, two members of the organizing committee had to withdraw due to sickness and personal reasons. Registration was possible from April 25th for a fee of 50€. The fee covered the costs for food and accommodation.
A WhatsApp group was created for the participants to self-organize and find free spaces in tents for the overnight stays in the camp. Due to the stagnant registration until one week before the event, the planned escort vehicle was replaced by a cargo bicycle as the full amount of cooking equipment was not necessary.
Project implementation and experiences
The biking tour started in Oldenburg on Friday, June 9th 2023. We were supposed to meet at 12:00 o’clock at the Ressourcen Zentrum, but most of the registered participants joined in after the talk of Niko Paech for various reasons. After the group was assembled, we drove to the farming community Grummersort in Hude, where we arranged to have a guided tour through the farm. Due to the small number of participants and missing personnel, the guided tour took the form of self-guided tour with an informal discussion with the available employees about the organization of the community. After the visit, we headed to the camping ground on the island of Harriersand, where we arrived 2 hours behind schedule, but still in daylight. We cooked chili sin carne and had dinner together.
The next morning on Saturday, June 10th, we left to Wilhelmshaven one hour and a half later as planned. We arrived in the late afternoon and received a guided tour through the Wattenmeer
Besucherzentrum. Two hours later than planned, we arrived at the camping ground Friesland Camping in Schortens, where the restaurant was already closed. Food was ordered from a nearby pizza shop.
On the last day, Sunday, June 11th, we left on time to return to Wilhelmshaven and take part in the arranged ‘Südstrandexkursion’ by the Wattenmeer Besucherzentrum at 11:15 am. After the beach excursion and lunch break, the remaining participants split up into two groups: one returned to Oldenburg by bike and one by train.
Some photos of the event are publicly available and can be viewed on the website of Scientists 4 Future Fahrradtour https://uol.de/s4f-biking
Despite the struggles described above, the overall feedback from the participants was very positive. Although it was a small group of 6 participants, the people behaved kindly, friendly and respectful to each other. When needed, we waited for one another on the way and shared food, camping equipment and tents.
It was especially interesting to hear that one lady writing her dissertation on the Wadden sea said that after the bike tour she loved her topic even more because she could experience the ecosystem directly and understand more about it.
In the following, there are comments and reflections shared by some of the participants.
Participant 1 (neuropsychology student): “It was a great experience. I enjoyed the bike tour program, visits, and camping experience. Getting to know new people was also a highlight of this experience for me. It was a wonderful and exciting journey with you all. I am so happy to have met you.”
Participant 2 (medical student): “I also enjoyed the guiding tours in the museum and on the Wattenmeer. I learned a lot from the challenging ecosystem of the area. The resources centre in Oldenburg is also really inspiring. Thank you for organising the biking tour and thank you also all the lovely people. I had a great time with you 🙂 ”
Participant 3 (technician): “I’m very glad I met you, you’re really nice people, each of you always has a smile 😃 on your face and I think that’s very nice, even the bike ride was very good, we did a lot of sport and at the same time enjoyed it, I would like to take part again if you feel like it […]”
Achieved project goals
It can be said that the goals of the project were reached in terms of successfully organizing a bike tour and raising awareness about the regional environment and challenges among the participants. The main problem that we faced was the small number of participants. We planned initially for 30 people, but in the end we were only 6 people. Unfortunately, a few people cancelled their participation at the last moment and a few people could not join because of sickness or other personal reasons. We observed а high interest from international PhD candidates, but less so from German candidates. This might very well be because all the advertisements and invitations for participation were written in English.
Nevertheless, a framework for organizing biking tours for young researchers at the University of Oldenburg has been created, including a website, sources of funding, cost estimates, packing lists and a list of possible destinations and contacts. However, most members of the old organizing team
are unlikely to take the lead in a second tour next year. At this point we lack the vision of how this project can be further organized and brought in motion.
The participants of the tour were made aware of the important role of the PhD Council and the need for active participation in this group. One of the volunteers of the tour also became a member of the PhD council during the last election. Without her, the current PhD Council would have not been quorate. In this sense, we can say that the bike tour played a role in gaining new members for the PhD Council.
Improvement suggestions and recommendations for similar initiatives
We believe that the organization of this extra-curricular activity was a valuable experience and a contribution to creating a more open and friendly study environment for young researchers at the university. However, as a first attempt to organize such a cross-disciplinary event, filled with physical activity and interactions lasting more than one-day, we noticed that we could do better in some respects.
- Number of participants – this year we planned a capacity for about 30 people, but after the experiences made, we were unanimous that planning for 10-15 people is more realistic and manageable in the case of only two organizers.
- Registration period and event date – we opened the registration this year one and a half months before the event, which in our view was too short-term. Many of the PhDs already had plans for that weekend. We assume that opening the registration in February would give both the organizers and the participants more time to prepare. The date of the event should also be carefully selected, so that it does not coincide with major festivals.
- Start of the event, meeting point and time – This year we were supposed to meet all at the Ressourcenzentrum and starting directly with a presentation there. We were very disappointed to experience that only two people were on time. In this regard, it might be smart to include a (secret) time buffer when scheduling the start of activities next time.
- Appointment scheduling – this year we calculated the time required to get from point A to point B based on Google maps estimate multiplied by 1,5. However, we realized that it took us about twice the time to get to the desired destination. This caused time pressure to cycle exceedingly fast to reach our destination and fixed appointments on time. As a result, we had less time for enjoying breaks on the way. This was a bit stressful for some of the participants. Next time we should multiply the time suggested by Google maps by two for a more realistic estimate.
- Clear crisis management plan – this year we experienced a small bike breakdown (a broken bike chain) for which we were not really prepared. Luckily, some local people gave us a helping hand and the problem was quickly fixed and we could reach the destination more or less on time. In this connection, it would be better to expect, plan and prepare for such crisis situations or accidents.
- Bring a cooler bag – this year we forgot, and the chocolate and butter melted!
Some additional questions emerged for us to reflect on. First, how relevant, and useful was the inclusion of the ‘Scientists for Future’ Network? We could not have more interactions with members of the group beyond getting a permission for using the logo of the movement on the T-Shirts. It might be further explored, how best to promote the values underlying the network among young researchers at Oldenburg University, and the PhD Council, in particular.
Second, how can the low interest for the ‘S4F bike tour’ this year be explained? Most probably, more factors play a role here. Camping is an outdoor activity, which is very intense and requires careful preparation and special equipment that can be costly. It might be that not so many people are ready to invest the money. Next, spending two overnight stays away from home might be a trouble for some families. Finally, although cycling has certain health benefits, the S4F bike tour was a challenging physical exercise as we were cycling at an average of 5-6 hours per day. In this regard, it might be that not so many young researchers feel attracted to biking for so long.
Third, is a bike tour the most appropriate platform for fostering communication and exchange among young researchers across the faculties? We think that the bike tour is a sustainable, fun, and healthy activity for facilitating communication, but future projects can use also other activities as a platform, such as a barbecue evening, gaming, symposium, rowing, etc. The core idea of the S4F bike tour for enabling communication and exchange across the faculties will be best continually adapted to the preferences and interests of the organizers and members of the PhD Council.