Field-experiences in every geoscience class: the key to facilitating developmentally appropriate instruction

Sean Cornell, Geography and Earth Science, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

Whether planning for an introductory, non-majors course or an upper-level major's class, I know that I must integrate at least one field experience into the class, if not more. At any university facing budget challenges, this is more easily said than done, and yet it is perhaps one of the most important tenants of my teaching philosophy. The challenge of getting between 72 and 118 non-major students nearly every semester into the field is one not undertaken by any of my colleagues. The time investment and logistics of getting non-major students into the field is significant and often not without major headaches. Numerous weekends and evenings are consumed in the effort, much to my wife's dismay. Yet student evaluations on the "best part of the course" retort the value and impact on learning that these efforts achieve. So why do a field experience in every class?

Ultimately, it is as much about inspiring students, as it is about teaching the methods of geoscience and connecting students to developmentally appropriate methods of learning. In the past, many young people had opportunities to access, observe, and investigate the outside world whether through playing in fields, forests, seashores, streams, or other natural places. Unfortunately, few students are afforded the same opportunities today. It is sad, but true. Young people today have few opportunities to interact with and explore natural environments; therefore, many students are disconnected from the natural world, as are their powers of observation. The reality is that educators have long suggested that most learners learn best when active, hands-on learning strategies are employed. Direct sensory experiences that generate discovery are more powerful as learning experiences when compared to other learning strategies. When students sit in a classroom in front of a chalkboard, they are disconnected from the environment physically and developmentally, and for most, this often results in a learning-handicap. For these reasons, field experiences in geoscience classes are critical to helping students learn not only basic concepts, but also contribute to learning the methods of geoscience that are rooted in observation, and asking questions.

Simply put, field experiences offer students opportunities to hone their observational skills and to apply abstract and process concepts learned in the classroom.

Since the geosciences rely so extensively on mastery of spatial-temporal concepts and process visualization, all requiring development of higher-order thinking skills, part of my teaching approach is to immerse students in environments where they are required to make observations, ask questions, and connect components of the physical landscape with underlying geologic concepts. For the purposes of this essay, I illustrate my approach through two courses... one an upper-level field research course and the other a general education Introductory Geology class.

In the latter, at the outset of the class, I provide students with a laboratory that explores and visualizes geoscience data sets using technology (i.e. through GeoMapApp, Google Earth, etc.) in order to initiate discussions of plate tectonic concepts. These inquiry-based approaches require that students investigate plate tectonic environments, topography/bathymetry of continents and ocean basins, the distribution and pattern of earthquakes, volcanoes, age of the sea-floor, and more. Students are then required to use their textbook as a way to research and explain their personal observations. Although many students struggle with the lack of "structure" that they have become dependent upon, they are forced to become active learners. They have to find words to describe what they have visualized and the vocabulary and concepts to explain their observations. These efforts provide the student with a baseline of observations with which they can then relate additional concepts through subsequent lectures and ultimately the field experience for the course. Fortuitously, our geographic location in the middle of the Great Valley of central Pennsylvania permits a follow-up field experience that includes an overview of field-evidence for timing and development of Alleghenian Orogenesis during the formation of Pangaea. In the same day, we are also able to explore the consequences of rifting processes that took place in the Gettysburg Basin during the Triassic to early Jurassic. In this way, the field-experience is integrated into the scaffold produced during earlier inquiry-based activities. Students are afforded significant opportunities to visualize and contextualize their observations into their own mental frameworks to support long-term retention of the information.

In the upper-level field-based course, my approach is to immerse students into a field-experience where learning is to some degree "unstructured". This semester-long course is initiated by an international travel experience (to Curaçao) prior to the start of the semester. Students have minimal experience in the geography/geology of the region and are forced to reconsider all preconceptions in such a way as to once again render students vulnerable to their surroundings. The physical and human landscapes are completely alien to most students so few students can rely on previous assumptions. Every observation is a new observation that must be considered, qualified, and integrated into existing knowledge base.

To further challenge them, students are immediately required to identify a research question that they are responsible for exploring and championing through the rest of the course. Daily field-excursions provide an overview of both the geologic history and the human-history of the island so that students have a framework to which they can relate. Near the end of the field experience, several days are allocated to student research. Students collect observations, work to refine their research questions, and initiate data collection as possible. For the remainder of the semester after the field experience, students contextualize the significance of their research question, establish baseline knowledge of the pertinent literature, perform data analyses, and draw conclusions. Throughout the process, students share their learning with other students in seminar discussions, and ultimately present their research at the all campus research day. This method of instruction appeals to the innate engagement in discovery and exploration mentioned previously, and arguably reflects the true nature of scientific research. Rather than engaging students in scientific discourse entirely through textbook methods, the methods outlined here require students to explore scientific methods by using the same processes used by practicing geoscientists. In my experience, this results in a more cohesive learning experience that not only allows students to develop background knowledge, but also forces improved observational skills, and opportunities to employ critical thinking skills that use inference and deduction to draw reasonable conclusions. Likewise, these approaches are aligned with developmentally appropriate methods that reach most learning styles.

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