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Field Labs - Pedagogical Considerations

Initial Publication Date: March 25, 2004
Mary Savina and a student investigate an outcrop Teaching geoscience with field labs is more than just lecturing in the field or, alternatively, dropping students off at an outcrop and leaving them entirely to their own devices.

This page discusses some of the philosophical underpinnings of field work pedagogy. The links immediately below lead to pages that discuss more specific pedagogical considerations to use to plan and carry out field labs.

How to structure a field lab| Managing time in the field |Students with Special Needs

Fieldwork as part of a larger and longer geoscience investigational process.

Although many geoscience problems originate in a field question, most professional investigations of these problems consist of a mix of fieldwork, laboratory and computational work, reading and repeated efforts in all of these categories. As the why use field labs page indicates, there are many sound pedagogical reasons for doing field labs with students, even if the emphasis on field work mimics only one part of a complete geoscience investigation. Planning follow-up activities is one way of extending short field labs into fuller investigations.

What Needs to Be Done in the Field - So you can finish the whole project

A field lab is the ideal opportunity for students to collect their own data, whether it be on outcrop structures, flow rate of a river or some other feature. If data interpretation, or any other kind of follow-up is to be done, it is important to make certain that all necessary data are collected while in the field and that field time isn't used for things that can be done later while inside. See tips on managing field time.

The scientific method in field geoscience.

Field labs that start with a question or problem, and then proceed through an information-gathering stage to hypothesis development and testing introduce students to key parts of the scientific method. The format can be varied by starting with observation ("Here's a depression in the floodplain next to the river.") and then developing the question ("What processes generated the depression?"). See How to structure a field lab for more information.

Multiple working hypotheses

In geoscience, more so than in other sciences, it is useful to formulate and test several hypotheses simultaneously ("Did the glacier do it? Did a river do it? What evidence would we look for to decide?"). T. C. Chamberlin's classic paper (Chamberlin, 1890 ) is a resource that you (and perhaps even some of your students) will find helpful.

Chamberlin, writing near the turn of the nineteenth century, advises naturalists to invent and/or test several testable hypotheses for each question that they investigate. This method helps to avoid the usual "parental affection" theorists develop when testing only one idea at a time. Moreover, he suggests, a good interpretation of a complex phenomenon may result in the retention of more than one hypothesis. For example, the formation of the Great Lakes probably resulted from a combination of preglacial stream erosion, glacial ice erosion, and crustal deformation, not any one of these processes alone. The advantages of the multiple-working-hypothesis method include increased objectivity, flexibility in response, and improved ability to recognize one's own errors and ignorance. Drawbacks of the method are difficulty in explanation (there's so much more to explain) and an increased delay in settling on and reporting findings.

Chamberlin's paper on multiple working hypotheses revised by the author to refer to geology more specifically (Chamberlin, 1897 ).
Bruce Railsback of the University of Georgia has created a two-page synthesis of Chamberlin's ideas: T. C. Chamberlin's "Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses": An encapsulation for modern students.