Strategies for teaching a field biology course

…Part 2 from a series of posts about the value of field biology courses

I previously wrote about the value of field courses in undergraduate University programs, and promised to follow up with a post focused on the ‘how’.  It’s also timely since my field biology course from this term is wrapping up, so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the past term.  It is important to write about some practical strategies for instructing field biology courses because I sometimes hear from my colleagues (and some University administrators) that field biology courses are too expensive, only possible with small class sizes, impractical for introductory classes, and otherwise difficult to successfully integrate into an Academic program.   I have been teaching field biology for a number of years, and believe that most of these criticisms are not valid.    I hope this post can dispel some myths about field biology courses, and convince more people to offer outdoor experiences and experiential learning as part of University curriculum.

Sampling pond invertebrates, five minutes from campus

1. Think global, act local.  Field biology classes do not need to go to exotic locations to be successful.  Many people associate field biology with traveling to a Caribbean Island, a rainforest, or the desert – true, these are prime locations for field courses, but it’s not necessary to travel far to teach field biology.  Our own backyards are ideal locations to study.  In fact, our own backyards are highly relevant to field biology since they are habitats that can be most relevant to our own well-being!   A trip to a local agricultural field will firmly implant the importance of food security and the relationship between food production and global food markets.  A trip to a urban park can be an opportunity to discuss and learn about introduced species and how they are affecting our local biota (European starlings, anyone?).  A trip to a roadside ditch can illustrate how local dispersal plays a role in governing the population dynamics of aquatic macroinvertebrates.  All of these concepts can be illustrated by habitats found within walking distances of many University campuses.  No flights required.

2. The yellow school bus.  Without a doubt, transportation is expensive, and even local trips can be costly.  However, it’s important to remember that ALL courses are expensive, and the fees associated with a yellow school bus are analogous to fees for chemicals, glassware and other consumables associated with a wet chemistry laboratory.  Unfortunately, my experience has been that Administrators do not see outdoors labs through the same lens as indoor labs. Although indoor ‘lab fees’ are often within Departmental or Faculty budgets, renting buses is often an expense that is not accounted for in the same way.  This can be a key reason for the impression that field biology courses are expensive.  I urge you to work within your own systems to find a way to make the yellow school bus as important as all other fees associated with delivering any University course.  Until this institutional shift is made, you will need to come up with creative solutions to the transportation issue.  For example, I often work with my colleagues to find a way to share busses, or do some laboratories within walking distance of our campus.  It may also be possible to have students take public transit to a designated field site.

3. Group work!  A few years ago I was faced with increased enrolment in my field biology course and this presented a challenge.  Suddenly ‘in the field’ lectures and discussions would be impossible (how do you speak to 60 students outside, in a gale-force wind?).  Discussing strategies with colleagues was informative, and I learned that many field biology courses were capped to avoid taking too many students outside.  I didn’t like this – and I could not cap my course without good reason, especially since my course was a requirement for the program.  The solution?  Group work and student-led learning!  For most of my laboratories, I have designed specific activities that don’t require any formal ‘outdoor lectures’ (which, by the way, are generally useless).   Upon getting off a bus, students are often put into groups (sometimes predetermined, sometimes not) and they rotate through different activities.  Here are some examples:

(i)  In a lab about agroecosystems this term, groups of students walked separately through different field crops at the local horticultural centre, and were asked to observe various aspects of the small-scale agriculture system.  The instructor and the TA walked among the groups and took part in the discussions as necessary.  The students were asked to ask questions, make observations, and then meet at a designated time to discuss their questions with the head of the horticultural centre.

(ii) In an earlier offering of my course, students were put into groups at a local forest, and were asked to move around to different locations where they were met by instructors or TAs, and at those locations they took part in small activities related to studying biodiversity in the forest – invertebrates at one location, bird calls at another, plant identification at a third, etc.

(iii) I have sometimes sent all groups off to do the same activity (e.g., measuring soil types in a forest or agroecosystem) and then bring the data back to a classroom and their data provided the content for a lecture about variability in nature and bias in observation.

(iv) As a final example, in one laboratory to a wetland conservation area, individual students were asked, ahead of time, to research specific species that we would see while visiting a field site.  The students became the experts and they were asked to share their knowledge with their peers (i.e., when they were in groups, in the field).  The students became the instructors, and nothing reinforces concepts and content like having to teach it!

….Fundamentally, field biology with a larger class size must embrace the idea of doing group work.

Students, working in groups

4. Bring in the experts.  Field biology is complex to teach in part because of nature’s variability and because an instructor cannot be the expert in all things.  I use the approach of inviting my colleagues (and graduate students) to take part in (and lead) specific activities related to their own expertise.  By in large, I have found my colleagues to be very open to this idea, and provided I do not ask them for help every year, they are most willing to take part.   For many of my colleagues who do not teach in field biology courses regularly, this is a nice opportunity to get outdoors and take part in a different style of teaching.  It’s also a big advantage to students as they are able to appreciate different teaching styles, and gain a recognition for various levels of expertise by instructors.  In fact, this week I am inviting a geologist to take my students on a walk around Mont Royal in Montreal.  Understanding the geological foundations to our local ecosystems is only possible in this class because of the generous involvement from my colleague.  In sum – a  field biology course can be improved by bringing in additional help.

5. Set-up your lab with a lecture:  I have found it immensely useful to set up a field biology laboratory with some kind of content in advance of the trip.  This allows for ‘setting the stage’ so the unfamiliar can be a little more familiar.  To relate this back to my geology field-laboratory, earlier in the term the same colleague came and gave a (indoor) lecture on the geology of the greater Montreal area.  The students therefore have had exposure to the topic in advance of the lab, and were asked to do some readings prior to the laboratory.  This avoids that problem of tying to deliver lectures outside.  Trying to combine experiential learning, in the field, with learning content and concepts, can be difficult.  Use an earlier lecture slot as a means to set up the field activities and laboratories. Sometimes this will mean unique scheduling options for your course.  For example, I have timetabled my course by doing a one-hour lecture each Tuesday an one four-hour field lab each Thursday – the Tuesday lecture can be used to cover some content and allows me to devote the entire field laboratory to field activities.

Field Biology in the winter – why not?

6. Embrace the unpredictable:  Taking students out in a rainstorm, or when it’s -15C, is part of the field biology experience.  Nature can be unpredictable, and we need to embrace this instead of shy away from it.  In the Montreal area, seasonability is a driving force in all our ecosystems, yet field biology courses tend to be focused in ‘nice weather’ seasons.  My colleague Murray Humphries is always telling me that our students must realize that winter ecology is as important as what happens in the summer!  He’s right! (Murray, by the way, does take students out on winter trips in his mammalogy course, and they do winter tracking and other activities relate to cold-weather science).   We can see and do a lot of field biology in all seasons, and must change the mindset of associating field biology with the warm months.  And, as an anecdote, of all the camping trips that I did with my father when I was (much) younger, I remember vividly the ones with rain, sleet, snow and wind storms.  Nice weather is boring.

In sum, field biology courses are doable, providing the instructor can be creative and embrace alternative approaches to teaching.

What are your own strategies?  Please share…

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3 thoughts on “Strategies for teaching a field biology course

  1. I had university cars available for field trips. At one time the university was economizing by not maintaining the fleet. On one trip, I blew out three tires and replaced them with tires bought out in the boonies, not at state mass purchase prices. I’ve done field trips at all levels and distances. I’ve done them on campus in introductory labs, Your points are all well taken, One trip I did with my ichthyology class was to get together with the Regional Fishery Biologist, and go fish-shocking out in the Mississippi River. There are resources outside the usual university realm.

  2. Pingback: How I traded field biology for a desk job | Arthropod Ecology

  3. Pingback: Field courses need more units | Small Pond Science

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