Field Experiences: Changing Lives, One Ecology Student at a Time

Bachelor students studying ecology collect data on a field course with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (Image credit: Caitlin Mandeville, CC BY 2.0)

The first time I remember really thinking that I could be an ecologist was during a three-day trip to a field station in northern Wisconsin as part of my college limnology course. Sure, I already loved my ecology classes and learning about nature. But actually being a scientist? Real scientists, I thought, were people like my professors and graduate teaching assistants, who peppered their lectures with captivating tales of their own research.

I was fascinated by their work but couldn’t relate to their stories on a personal level. Until, that is, that one autumn weekend sophomore year when I found myself knee deep in a bog with a muddy soil core in one hand and a data sheet in the other (shout out to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Trout Lake Station!). Suddenly something clicked—I could do this too! The feeling only intensified as we traveled back to campus and, over the next few weeks, analyzed and wrote up the results of our field studies. My whole understanding of doing science had shifted from an abstract idea to a lived reality.

Of course, this experience felt totally individual and personal at the time. But I’ve since learned that my experience was far from unique—the transformative impact of field experiences in ecological education has been demonstrated over and over again.

Left: the author as a young’un shortly after her first field experience, still figuring out this whole fish biology thing. Right: ten years later, trying to pay it forward while teaching current college students in the field. (Image credits: Caitlin Mandeville, CC BY 2.0)

A recent study of undergraduates in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, for example, found that students’ self-confidence in scientific competencies increased dramatically after completing a field course. In contrast, students in an entirely lecture-based course showed a much smaller increase in self-confidence. This has a lot to do with the authentic research experiences that are built into field work; the ability to engage in real data collection and analysis without fear of the “wrong answer” frees students to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts they are studying.

And the benefits of field experiences extend far beyond greater mastery of technical skills like data collection, experimental design, and research methods. The small class sizes, opportunities for more informal conversation with instructors, and immersive nature of the experience allow students to develop a better understanding of the day-to-day reality of conducting ecological research. And in turn, it’s easier for students to see themselves as potential ecologists, too.

This increased sense of belonging in the field of ecology is especially critical for students from demographic groups that are underrepresented and marginalized in science careers. Research shows that students with identities that are underrepresented in science are less likely to aspire to scientific careers, driven partially by a lack of scientific role models and a resulting lack of self-identification with science. Field experiences, with their tendency to inspire self-efficacy and self-identification as a scientist, are a huge opportunity to overcome these barriers. In the UC Santa Cruz study, increases in self-efficacy were greatest among students from underrepresented groups, substantially closing the gap in retention and self-confidence.

Increases in self-reported student self-efficacy after participation in lecture and field courses. (Image credit: Beltran et al. 2020, CC BY 4.0, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6300)

Of course, if field experiences are not planned with an emphasis on inclusivity, they can present more of a barrier than an opportunity to students from underrepresented backgrounds. The remote location of many field experiences, often combined with a lack of visible institutional oversight, can create unsafe situations for students when faced with sexual harassment, racist actions, or other abuses of power dynamics. Adding to these significant stressors, the physical and mental challenges of long days of outdoor fieldwork can be an obstacle for students and can even render poorly planned field experiences inaccessible to some students with disabilities. Furthermore, the costs associated with preparing for a field experience, including the cost of field-appropriate clothing and gear as well as any direct costs of the trip, can be prohibitive for many students.

Fortunately there is a lot of research being conducted to outline best practices for inclusive, successful educational field experiences. One major aspect of inclusive field experience design is the growing realization that “the field” is a much bigger place than you might think. Travel to remote locations can be prohibitive for some students, but research increasingly shows that local field experiences confer many of the same benefits as more extended trips. It’s important for students to see that a career in ecology doesn’t have to be spent in the remote wilderness; in fact, ecological research in urban, suburban, and agricultural landscapes is critical for addressing questions about humans’ relationship to ecological systems.

Fun in the field learning about beach morphology on a 3-hour field trip just a few miles from the University of New Hampshire campus. (Image credit: Caitlin Mandeville, CC BY 2.0)

Field course planners should design their courses with inclusivity and accessibility in mind from the beginning. Clearly and transparently outlining the course plans and expectations, designing a thorough code of conduct and outlining procedures for responding to violations, choosing accessible field locations and identifying possible adjustments to enhance accessibility, training instructors in cultural competency, and being responsive to students’ concerns can go a long way towards designing field trips that provide a positive experience for all students. The Organization of Biological Field Stations and Undergraduate Field Experiences Research Network are two great resources to assist instructors in planning inclusive field experiences.

Now that the roles have reversed and I find myself taking undergraduates out into the field as an educator, I’m incredibly grateful for resources like these. Remembering the impact of my own educational field experiences motivates me to think deeply about how to make the sort of “ah ha!” moment that I experienced as an undergraduate accessible to each and every student that I have the opportunity to teach, and I’m glad to see a growing focus on this topic in the field of ecology as a whole.

What about you? If you’ve had a formative experience—for better or for worse—on a field course, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Caitlin Mandeville is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studying conservation applications of citizen science species occurrence data. You can read about her research here and see more of her writing for Ecology for the Masses at her profile here.

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