Thai-ing Conservation and Education Together: The Traidhos Barge Program
Kirsty Shakespeare is the head of the Traidhos Barge Program in Bangkok, Thailand which aims to educate and connect people with their environment and raise awareness of environmental issues. In this interview Kirsty talks about what her role entails, how she got to where she is and her advice for others.
Can you start by telling me a bit about what your job involves?
Of course – the Barge Program is an environmental education program based in Thailand and we work with Thai and international schools running environmental and sustainability education field trips across Thailand or on our Barge lasting from 1 day up to 2 weeks.
My role as Head of Barge is organising the trips so I work directly with teachers and schools to meet their learning objectives with what we can offer on trips, covering different areas of the Chao Phraya watershed which is the main watershed in Thailand. We cover all the key habitats through Thailand from the mountains in Chiang Mai to marine areas, mangroves and forests.
My role also includes working with different suppliers and communities in Thailand to enhance the trips with different activities and also helping train our staff of which there are up to 30 in our peak season, which is the dry season here. We have teaching staff, office support staff and volunteers plus two crewmen and a captain who work on the Barge.
Do you have a typical working day or does it vary according to who you’re working with and what you’re organising?
It varies throughout the year. Typically I am teaching full time for 3/4 months of the year from November to February which is the busy season since it is the coolest and driest, so we are on trips with students then. On these teaching days we are up around 6:30am for breakfast at 7:00am with the students, then we have different activities that relate to the environmental themes that they are looking at. For example, if we’re at the forest we might be hiking or looking at food webs and ecosystem services.
We do activities until dinner at 6pm and then we might have a few evening activities such as campfires or shadow puppets. The rest of the year I am more office based which again varies. I might be networking and building new partnerships with different conservation organisations and schools or looking at website development and our social media presence.
I also do program development such as researching and visiting new trip sites, looking at the kinds of activities we could offer in those places and doing risk assessments. In fact we are currently looking at developing a new local, land-based site within Bangkok. Our Barge is moored at this site at the moment where it is used as a floating classroom but we want to develop the surrounding land into an educational farm and teaching garden, to look at traditional Thai farming techniques and doing some habitat restoration along the river bank by planting water-tolerant species to help stop erosion and attract native local wildlife such as freshwater invertebrates.
How did you get involved in the program?
I saw it advertised online – when we’re recruiting we advertise online, both on our own website and other conservation job boards. I just happened to be perusing job sites and saw it and thought “oh that sounds good, I could do that”! The role here is quite similar to my previous role as an Education Development Officer at the Living Rainforest in the UK, but just with more opportunities to go out and do work in the field on residential trips rather than on my own site.
Have you always wanted to work in conservation and education?
Not so much education; conservation yes. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved animals and the environment. When I was young I my dad took me out with the dog and we would go walking through the fields and I would be hunting bugs and pond dipping and doing anything I could possibly imagine, so it always seemed like the obvious choice to do a Zoology degree and follow that route.
I kind of fell into the education side. I did a lot of volunteering whilst I was at university and a lot of that happened to be working with students such as running some of the Natural History’s OPAL surveys and working with local students to look at air and soil quality. After I graduated from my master’s I was looking for positions and there were quite a few education based positions that came up which I applied for and was successful in getting so that sort of started the education side of it for me.
What are the best and worst bits of your job?
The worst bits are probably the early mornings! I am not a morning person – I take several cups of tea to be fully awake and functioning but often starting trips involve early mornings as we have to get across from our office in Bangkok to meet the schools on site.
As for the best bits, there’s lots – Thailand is a beautiful country and we get to go out and do trips in these amazing rainforests and mangrove forests and marine areas which are beautiful places and the kind of places that I would like to visit myself, so the fact that I get to do that for work is great. It’s especially nice visiting them with students and seeing how they engage with these places and get inspired.
Most of the children we work with live in Bangkok so they’re very city based and spend a lot of time indoors in the air-con because it’s typically very hot, so for a lot of the students we work with sometimes their Barge Program trip is the first real outdoor experience of being in these natural habitats. It’s great to see the transformation they have from first being a bit nervous of the wildlife to then being actively looking for creatures and telling me about what they know and remember from their trip.
It’s very rewarding because although we visit the same location regularly, I might have visited sites 40 or 50 times, every group of students makes it different because they’ve got different ideas, questions and opinions. So in a way the sites are new to me every time because of students’ different interpretations.
Do you have any career highlights, what are you most proud of?
As a program over the last couple of years we have worked hard and added a lot of community service elements to our trips – being involved with the communities and habitats that we are working with has been important to me as head of Barge. For example, we’ve done a lot of mangrove planting and forest restoration programs as well as working with Thai schools running free environmental education programs for them in school and getting the international students and students from Thai schools to work together to build these relationships.
Another highlight for me is the number of people that I’ve worked with. Including both the number of students that come to the Barge Program and from my previous roles, there have probably been over half a million people who have come through education programs that I have worked on which is quite a big number in a relatively short time. It has been fantastic to be able to get the message out to lots of people.
Something else I am proud of is winning the Alumni of the Year Award in 2018 from Anglia Ruskin University, where I did my bachelors degree, for “Service to Society” due to my environmental education work.
Has the pandemic changed anything for you?
The international and Thai schools closed so we haven’t been able to run physical trips in the field. So we shifted our focus to more online-based learning like providing resources through our social media and our newsletters that go out to schools and parents which provide different resources and activities that students can engage with from home which might link to what they are studying, such as bird watching from the balcony or investigating plant pots for different invertebrates.
Additionally the Barge Program, along with our sister programs which are based in Chiang Mai, have put together a six-week virtual camps package. It’s been a great opportunity for us to explore online platforms because it’s not something that we would typically have the time or the manpower to do but because everyone is in the office we’ve been able to reach out into these new, exciting areas.
What key steps have you taken in your career?
Getting your foot in the door is the hardest thing in this industry and the best way to do that, especially in the early stages, is volunteering and keeping an active knowledge in the fields which you are interested in getting a career in. I volunteered for everything I could from collecting money for the RSPCA when I was at uni to helping different bat groups monitor bat boxes to working with schools through university projects.
Keeping your hand in as a volunteer to gain that practical experience is really important and obviously you will start building a network of contacts which will help in terms of job opportunities.
I did a degree in Zoology and a masters in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation so having relevant qualifications helps too. The Barge is outdoor education but when I graduated there weren’t really any outdoor education degrees but I think now that’s becoming more of a university focussed topic and there are specialist universities you can do those outdoor based courses.
I think the hardest step is getting from the volunteering to the job but the contacts and experience you build up will help you get a foot in the door; if paid positions come up most companies will offer volunteers the job, or at least an interview, because they are already experienced in the role and know the staff and company.
What advice would you give for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Well, volunteering! Even at the moment during the pandemic there are things you can do to keep gaining experience such as free online ID and GIS courses and volunteering to analyse camera trap images. So there’s lots of ways to keep adding more strings to your bow whilst looking for jobs.
There’s also lots of good Facebook groups which post jobs and volunteering opportunities for conservation, education and zoo careers.
Sticking with things is also important – after I graduated it took me 2 years to get my first environmental job. I worked in recruitment to start with but I think it’s important to understand that any job that you do, whether or not it’s related to your degree or the field that you want to get in to, there are going to be transferable skills, it’s just working out how to apply them to new situations.
For example, the office based skills, admin skills and people-facing skills that I learnt from my recruitment positions I think really helped me to get my first job at the Living Rainforest which was my first education position – had I not worked in that recruitment position and gained that experience I don’t think I would have got my job at the Living Rainforest.
It’s important to be aware that it could take you a long time to get there [to your dream job] – persistence and keeping motivated are key. Try not to lose heart when you’re sending out applications and sometimes not even getting a response. Also if you’re unsuccessful at interview, try to get feedback as to why – sometimes it’s a case of needing a particular qualification or more experience in an area which are things you can work on as a guideline for those particular jobs.
And again, keeping going with your interests, reading scientific papers and keeping up to date with the news so even if you’ve been working in a job unrelated to your degree like a supermarket you can show employers that you are still serious and committed to your field even if you’ve been having to pay the bills by other means. You will get there!
You can also explore more advice from conservationists for careers in environmental education.