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Teaching geoscience methods in the field

Dave Mogk, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Learning in the field has traditionally been one of the fundamental components of the geoscience curriculum. There are many attributes of learning in the field environment that address teaching GeoMethods: definition of learning goals related to mastery of geoscience concepts and content; the development of professional skill sets that are used to describe, characterize, measure, and interpret data acquired directly from natural environments; leveraging the affective, cognitive and metacognitive gains afforded to students through learning in the field; and engagement by students in the community of practice that has been developed and accepted by geoscientists as a result of field studies. An awareness of these attributes will contribute to the design, development and implementation of effective instruction in the field. The following is a summary of a more comprehensive review of learning in the field by Mogk and Goodwin (2012) as part of the Synthesis of Research on Learning in the Geosciences project. Additional insights into teaching and learning in the field can be found in Whitmeyer et al., (2009).

Teaching GeoMethods in a field setting must be done in consideration of many factors. First, learning in the field is meant to encompass a range of activities that are physically conducted in the natural environment: making primary observations of Nature; taking samples; making measurements; directly using the human senses; and indirectly using instrumental sensors to interact with Earth objects and processes. The Earth system is inherently complex, dynamic, heterogeneous, and often chaotic, and presents many challenges to geoscience education. Frodeman (1995) has emphasized the historical and interpretive aspects of geoscience (as opposed to bench top, experimental science mostly done in highly constrained, closed systems). The geologic record is often incomplete or ambiguous, and consequently, the nature of geoscience expertise requires the development of cognitive strategies that allow geoscientists to work effectively in a world in which the available evidence is complex, uncertain, and often missing.

It is also important to consider the scope of field instruction that may range from a two-hour laboratory exercise in a location proximal to the classroom to sustained residential field camps with a duration of weeks to months. Field activities may be immersive or reconnaissance in nature, require geologic mapping on many scales, may focus on sampling activities, perhaps focus on measurements of geologic phenomena (stratigraphic sections, stream gauging), and increasingly use instrumentation (field geophysical surveys) or computer-based technologies ("GeoPads") in the conduct of field work.

Considerations for teaching GeoMethods related to field instruction include:

Cognitive, learning and social sciences provide additional insights into the value of field instruction, and why this is so important to teaching GeoMethods:
Some implications that inform how we teach GeoMethods in the field include:
Finally, I'd like to emphasize that learning in the field affords types of learning that cannot be achieved as easily or at all in other more controlled learning environments. The field setting evokes a very strong affective response that is strongly connected to cognitive functions. The learning of science is best done in the doing of science, and this is well-realized in the embodied practice of field work in both natural and social settings, and through the creation of inscriptions to represent natural phenomena. I would affirm that learning in the field is an essential component of professional training for ALL geoscientists, regardless of the sub-discipline of interest. It is in the field setting that the full history of Earth, its processes and products, over a range of temporal and spatial scales, are fully realized. It takes a long apprenticeship for novice geoscientists to be fully inculcated into the community of practice, so my advice is to get out into Nature early and often.


Frodeman R., 1995, Geological reasoning: geology as an interpretive and historical
science: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 107, no. 8, p. 960-968.

Mogk, D. W., and Goodwin, C., 2012, Learning in the Field: Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences, in K. Kastens and C. Manduca (eds.), Earth & Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences, Geol. Soc. Amer. Sp. Paper 486.

Whitmeyer, S., Mogk, D., and Pyle (eds.), 2009, Field Geology Education: Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches, Geol. Soc. Amer. Sp. Paper 461.

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Teaching Geoscience Methods in the Field (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 161kB May21 12)

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