Next Generation Field Courses: Enhancing ECR Development Through Open Science and Online Learning

This is a guest post by Jonathan von Oppen, Ragnhild Gya, Sonya Geange, Tanya Strydom, Sara Middleton and Brian Maitner.

Many careers in Ecology and Evolution begin with a trip to the field. Stumbling around a rocky beach or a fragmented grassland can be an awakening experience for a young researcher, as it’s often the first time a person perceives themselves as really doing science. Field courses, and of course field work, provide opportunities to inspire the next generation of biologists. These experiences allow people to engage with nature from a scientific perspective, experiencing the challenges and joys of translating biological theory into hands-on research. Project-based field courses in particular provide an opportunity to work through the research workflow in a supportive environment, and experience what it means to put together a meaningful experiment. As such, project-based field courses have been an important and well-established element in the training of early-career researchers (ECRs) not only in Ecology and Evolution, but across all scientific disciplines, from psychology to genetics. 

Recently we’ve seen both the scientific community and general public becoming more aware of the value of Open Science, and as a result an increased uptake of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reproducible) research practices, which facilitate collaborative research. For ECRs looking to establish best-practice workflows, it’s critical we provide opportunities within our education framework to develop these skills. We see project-based field-courses, with their active learning design, and replication of the scientific workflow, as an ideal opportunity to introduce these concepts.

I’m part of a team of six researchers that experienced these benefits first-hand during the fifth Plant Functional Traits Course (PFTC5) in Peru in March 2020, which we were involved in as either participants or course organisers. PFTC5 is part of a series of courses that offer hands-on training in trait-based plant community ecology. Since the first iteration in 2015, the courses have addressed cutting-edge research questions while explicitly ensuring reproducibility of research and involving local research communities. 

PFTC5 was disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in part of our group getting stuck in Cusco, Peru, and forcing some of the educational elements to continue online. Reflecting on the course later on, we realised how the existing Open Science and online course elements enabled us to complete the course in spite of this particularly challenging situation. Thinking about scientific education more broadly, we believe that including such elements will also prove beneficial for any field course, and help to promote development of valuable skills in participants. 

Read More: Turning Students Into Scientists with Professor Vigdis Vandvik

Many of us may recall our experiences on field courses slogging away in the field and lab, excited by our findings but left wondering if our new insights were publishable? In developing our field courses, we found that it’s possible to integrate several initiatives to not only develop Open Science and FAIR research practices in our students, but also facilitate scientific outcomes in their own rights. This gives ECRs the chance to see tangible results from the research, which is incredibly encouraging. 

Here’s three processes we used to teach ECRs how to build their own research projects.

  1. At the outset, we can build upon concepts such as registered reports, where we submit introduction and methods material for review prior to undertaking the work – encouraging our students to adopt a similar framework as they conceptualize and design their own research projects. 
  2. As we’re out in the field itself collecting data we can highlight how, by using standardized data collection and organization methods, we can make our data compatible and facilitate contributions to global databases. 
  3. Within this context, we can also integrate workshops and tutorials on how adopting reproducible workflows, including clear data documentation, can further increase our data compatibility and usability. 

Furthermore, through adopting these practices, not only do we teach Open Science and FAIR practices, but the project workflows and data can become publishable outputs in their own right, providing further opportunities for participants to engage with scientific publication. In a world where ‘publish-or-perish’ unfortunately still hasn’t quite faded out of our vocabulary, getting experience with this process early on can be a huge career boost. By integrating these elements into field courses, we can prepare the next generation of researchers for an increasingly Open Science-focused future and provide them with crucial skills for collaborative and transparent research.

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

We all have become more familiar with, and in many instances tired of, using online tools over the past year, but we think that they can come in very useful to further facilitate the learning experience. While online teaching certainly cannot substitute the experiential nature of field-based learning, we know these platforms can help to make better use of actual contact time, for the benefit of learning outcomes, data yield, and social interaction. 

For example, if we hold introductory lectures and tutorials remotely, course participants can be prepared better for what awaits them in the field, and there is more time available for sampling as well as group discussions. The same applies for post-course activities, like data analysis and documentation tutorials. 

An additional benefit is that with little effort, we can make these materials publically accessible (see here for PFTC5 examples), linking back to open educational resources being a core element of the Open Science framework. And, last but not least, the social aspects and networking opportunities of field courses are incredibly important for ECRs – just think about how many of your close collaborators you met in such a setting. For instance, our continued collaboration post PFTC5 on Open Science education is a great example of how such elements encourage interaction among course participants and with the wider community, and help to establish crucial networks in an increasingly interconnected field of ecology.

We hope that field course designers can draw from our suggestions to integrate Open Science and online elements into their education plans, and ultimately take learning outcomes and training of the next generation of researchers to a higher level.

If you’d like to read more about our ideas of integrating Open Science and online learning into field courses, see: Geange, SR, von Oppen, J, Strydom, T, et al. Next‐generation field courses: Integrating Open Science and online learning. Ecol Evol. 2020; 00: 1– 11.

Today’s authors are part of the Plant Functional Traits Course, which takes place most years at various locations aroundthe world. You can check out the fifth iteration of the course at this link, and follow the authors on Twitter (@JoovonOppen, @RagnhildGya, @sonyageange, @TanyaS_08, @sara_lil_plants and @BrianMaitner.

Title Image Credit: Sara Middleton, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

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