Cutting Edge > Geoscience in the Field > The Place of Fieldwork

The Place of Fieldwork in the Profession and Curriculum

Based on Mogk and Goodwin, 2012

From the earliest days of geology, great advances and insights have derived from keen observations of Earth. Butler (2008) asserted that the four key paradigms of the earth sciences - uniformitarianism, the extent of geological time, evolution and the history of life, and plate tectonics - all derive from field observations and related interpretational skills. In reflecting on Hutton's cognitive breakthrough regarding geologic time at Siccar Point, Gould (1987, p. 5) noted, "Hutton broke through those biblical structures because he was willing to place field observation before preconception - speak to the earth and it shall teach thee."

Field studies have provided the conceptual framework and inspired research questions that have subsequently been investigated using modern high-resolution analytical methods, experiments, physical and computational modeling, and the formulation and application of theory. In turn, the direct study of Earth in field settings has been greatly enriched through application of the results of these modern approaches. There is an iterative, positive feedback mechanism in understanding Earth and its processes that is derived from the flow of information between research that is grounded in nature and laboratory-based studies.

Geoscience education also has a long tradition of teaching and learning through direct experience from nature and from each other in the field setting among a community of geoscientists. One of the earliest accounts of field instruction concerns John Wesley Powell, who was an instructor at Illinois Wesleyan University after the Civil War:

Powell led his students on frequent field trips, a then innovative approach to science education. "We all recall how textbooks went to the winds with Major Powell," recalled student J. B. Taylor. "He made us feel that we had conquered the commonplace, broken our way through the accepted, and come into the heritage of free thinkers, and there was no shame in it anywhere."

Studying geology in the field has also contributed to the social structures that have served to train generations of geoscientists. The practice of field instruction of students has included formal class instruction, one-on-one master-apprentice relations, communal events (e.g., field trips and conferences), and independent field-based research by undergraduate and graduate students. The field setting is one of the important crucibles where science and scientists co-develop: Learning in the field has always been about creation of new knowledge by direct observation of Earth while providing an important foundation in the training and professional development of the next generation of geoscientists. The maxim, "The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks" (H.H. Read, 1939 address, published in 1957), has been embedded in geoscience education for generations.


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