Teaching in the Field Across the Geoscience Curriculum

The science of geology arose from observations of Earth processes and their products. While numerical models and laboratory experiments have become highly sophisticated in recent decades, geoscientists continue to "ground-truth" experimental findings and model predictions by comparing them to field observations. Consequently, learning in the field is an integral part of the study of geoscience. As such, and because geoscience differs from other scientific disciplines in this way, teaching our students how to think like a geoscientist in the field is an essential component of an undergraduate geoscience degree. Furthermore, as an essential component, field learning needs to be infused throughout the curriculum so that students are introduced to a significant cross-section of the types of geological questions that can be asked and answered in the field.

Achieving Program-Level Learning Outcomes

For students to master a sophisticated skill, set of skills, or habit of mind, it needs to be incorporated into multiple courses in the core curriculum. The matrix approach to curriculum design, developed by the Geology departments at the College of William and Mary and at Carleton College, is a simple strategy departments can use to see which program-level outcomes are taught, reviewed, and emphasized in each course in a curriculum.

If your department chooses a set of field skills you expect your graduates to master by the time they complete their major, every field experience offers an opportunity to practice those skills. For example, the St. Norbert College Geology program focuses on teaching students to make observations, to separate observations from interpretations, and to take excellent, detailed notes with annotated sketches.

Examples of Infusing Field Experiences into Core Courses

Field experiences can take a wide variety of forms, from brief excursions out of the classroom to explore campus building stones to teaching entire courses in the field. A number of workshop participants and leaders have explored aspects of teaching in the field in various parts of the core geoscience curriculum. The pages below link to presentations, activities, essays and other resources related to field instruction in particular courses.

Field Experiences Beyond the Curriculum

Beyond incorporating field experiences into specific courses, there are also opportunities for learning in the field outside of the curriculum. A few departments take annual field trips that are not associated with any particular course, in addition to course-related trips. These trips may be open to all majors and minors, or to all students enrolled in geoscience courses. In some cases, they are run by a student organization (Geology Club), with the assistance of a faculty advisor.