How to use Field Labs - Logistical Tips

Initial Publication Date: April 5, 2004
Fieldwork with students is easy! Well, not always easy, but the benefits greatly exceed the time needed to work out the details in advance and for follow-up. This page contains tips you'll find useful for organizing the logistics of field labs, assembling the appropriate equipment, and preparing the students. Feel free to skip to the parts of the page you need, using the links below. The advice and information in these pages was written based on the experiences of the Carleton College Geology Department (more info) , where field work at all levels of geoscience has been emphasized for more than forty years.
What students should wear | Safety considerations | Equipment suggestions

Where? - Choosing a Location

Geoscience field labs can be conducted almost anywhere. Clearly, one needs "in situ" exposures if the purpose of the lab is to describe and interpret natural features. But many geoscience teachers use gravel pits, river sediments, facing stones on buildings and other "unnatural" exposures or transported materials to teach concepts in geology. Labs in atmospheric science can be set up outside nearly any building or in any available open space. Almost every outdoor area has trees, soils and microorganisms that students can observe and interpret.

Where? - Getting permission

Many outstanding sites for field labs are on public land. These include road rights-of-way (for roadcuts and outcrops), parks and natural areas and and rivers and streams. Check whether hammering and sample collecting are allowed in parks and similar areas and leave the hammers and shovels behind if they aren't. Also check state and local regulations on whether stream beds and banks are open to public use.

If you want to work on private property, ask for permission from the owner. Your county may have a plat book with a current record of land ownership; this information is also available in local county offices and may be accessible on the Internet.

How Long? - Choosing a Length of Time for the Lab

Scheduled lab times at undergraduate schools typically range from two to five hours. It's obvious that for field labs some of this time will be used going back and forth to the field site. To maximize the amount of time available for observation and data collection, consider the following tips:

  • Use the lecture period immediately preceding the lab to orient students to equipment and lab goals.
  • Use the travel time to the site to have students work on some early parts of the lab (e.g. setting up notebooks, labeling data sheets, reading background materials, listening to a background lecture that you might deliver over a bus microphone or hand-held radios). Traveling to and from destinations is often a waste of time. It doesn't have to be if students are held accountable for answering questions along the way. Times between stops can also be used to answer questions concerning the landscape that is being traversed. For example, what is the change in elevation, land use, vegetation, and landforms? Students can calculate slope, relief, plus strike and dip.
  • Start students collecting data during a short lab period and then expect them to complete the lab on their own.
  • If you are constrained by very short lab periods, use campus sites for short labs and save the further away sites for an all-day trip. Tips for finding field sites on your campus
More tips for structuring field labs and managing time in the field.

How to get there? - Transportation tips

  • Follow your college's guidelines on who is allowed to drive and what training is required for the college's insurance.
  • Consider the types of vehicles the institution allows (minivans, school buses, coaches, etc.) and the type of terrain the vehicles will need to navigate. It's also important to consider appropriate transportation for students with limited mobility, for instance.
  • Take time to give each driver and navigator maps and directions to the stops, in case the caravan doesn't stay together.
  • Have a back-up plan in case a vehicle gets hopelessly lost (remembering that cell phones don't necessarily work in remote areas).
  • On a long field lab or trip with multiple stops, it's helpful to have the students stay in a single vehicle for the duration of the trip to making counting heads easier.