Explore Teaching Examples | Provide Feedback

Structuring Field Labs

Initial Publication Date: April 2, 2004
This systematic approach to structuring student field activities is based on field lab and field trip experiences of the Carleton College Geology Department (more info) over the past 40 years. It also incorporates aspects of the scientific method as applied to geoscience investigations.

A good field lab experience for students has several steps:

  • Organize the fieldwork around a particular question. Start the students on their fieldwork by articulating the question. In addition, while setting out the problem and the protocol, be sure to suggest the first step that students might want to do, give any necessary instructions and articulate the final products you want (cross-section, strat-section, sketch, large sketch, etc.)
  • Students studying a striated rock in northern MN
  • Encourage observation first. "What do you see?" is a helpful conversation opener with students. Be prepared to ask follow-up questions leading from their initial observation. See the Socratic Method Starting Point Module for more tips on how to structure a discussion based on questions and answers. After getting students started, you may want to disappear for awhile to allow them time to observe, talk with each other, and make notes without looking to you for the "answers."
  • The field "lecturette": what it is and when to use it.
    As the fieldwork is proceeding, several students may ask questions about the same topic (e.g. "How can I distinguish bedding planes from joints?"). At these times, a useful technique is to call all the students together and give a short lecture, a few minutes in length, which answers and amplifies the question at hand. With the field exposure in front of all of you, students will understand the concepts better than if you wait until returning to the classroom. This is a good opportunity to use the sketchpad and markers you brought with you.
  • Dealing with complexity and still making cogent observations:
    The inherent complexity of geoscience field problems is a pedagogical strength, but it comes at a price. Beginning students can have trouble making specific observations within what seems to them to be irreducible complexity and may become frustrated. Without being reductionist, an instructor can help students parse an outcrop, for instance, by asking specific questions, e.g. "Are all of the beds the same thickness? Why might that observation be important?" Then, either individually or in the final group discussion, the instructor can help students weave the specific observations back into a complex story. (Resources from the Cutting Edge module on teaching with students' affective domain in mind include helpful suggestions, many based in Bloom's taxonomy, for tackling these challenges).
  • The concluding discussion:
    After the students have completed making observations, taking notes, collecting samples, and the rest of the fieldwork, it is a good idea to have a short wrap-up discussion. Because the field lab is an inquiry-based experience, this is NOT the time or place to give students "the answers," but rather, a time to help them pull together what they've observed. Here are three helpful techniques to get this discussion underway:
    • Student group reports
      Ask for a student group to volunteer to present their observations and hypotheses to the entire group. (Note: it helps if you explain at the beginning of the field lab that the groups will be asked to present). Students in the group can switch off holding a sketchpad, doing the sketching and doing the verbal explaining of their ideas. Encourage other students to ask questions of clarification during the presentation. After the first group has finished, ask for discussion and then invite another group to present their ideas. You can assist this process by asking questions along the way, especially to make certain that everyone understands the ideas being presented (e.g. "So you are saying that the matrix-supported sediment indicates some kind of mass movement?")
    • Drawing out multiple hypotheses
      Once several observations and ideas are on the table, help the students articulate several hypotheses. For instance, it's possible that the field work and discussions at an outcrop of Cambrian sediments have narrowed down the range of sedimentary environments to some kind of nearshore marine environment, but students are uncertain where to go from there, despite good general discussion. You might ask, "What are the possible mechanisms for deposition in a nearshore environment?" and get the students to respond "tidal currents," "storms," etc.
    • Ask this question: "If we had time and money, what could we do to test these hypotheses?"
      It's unlikely (and probably undesirable) that the observations and discussions will have answered every imaginable question about the exposures you are studying. For instance, a favorite question that's important and just about impossible to answer in an afternoon's work is: "How much time did it take for these rocks to be formed?" A good way to conclude the discussion, then, is to ask what the next steps would be if there was time and money for further investigation, in the field, in the lab, or on the computer.
  • Summing up: Closure for the students
    Most students need some final words to help them feel that the field lab has a natural ending. Again, this need is not about answering all the possible geoscience questions that have arisen in the course of the field lab. Rather, the closing remarks can be used to summarize what the students have done both in observation/measurement and discussion ("This afternoon we measured an important section of the Goldbug formation and discovered that it is not so uniform as it has been described") and to tell them your observations of what's gone well and what needs work ("I was happy to see so many good sketches in all of your notebooks. On the other hand, I noticed that many of the groups didn't get to the east end of the outcrop").
  • Follow-up assignments:
    If there are follow-up assignments from the fieldwork, such as drafting a stratigraphic section or completing a map, it's important to remind students clearly of those assignments before finishing the field lab.