Field ecology courses provide authentic, inspiring experiences for students because they spark students’ curiosity about the natural world, provide opportunities for them to closely observe ecological interactions, allow them to collect data in all types of weather, and can facilitate conversations with long-term residents, land managers, and indigenous people who know the ecology and culture of a place. However, some courses fail to deliver these positive outcomes because faculty neglect to cultivate a supportive learning environment in the field, ignore students’ concerns about risks, and inadvertently leave students less excited about ecological field work than before the course. Given that ecology students have a limited number of opportunities to participate in field courses, we need each field experience to be as educational, inspiring, and transformative as possible. How do we teach better field courses?
Well-designed field courses cultivate community among students and can transform students’ thinking about themselves so they leave the field knowing that they are more capable than they thought they were. Ecologists who teach field courses can facilitate deep, transformative learning experiences and actively create community in the field by drawing on established methods from informal science education and experiential, outdoor education. Specifically, the best field courses 1) design the flow of course activities and experiences around the group development process (i.e., forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning) and consciously aid group development, 2) maximize student engagement in the field by adapting the calendar and curriculum as necessary, 3) cultivate students’ intellectual growth while being aware of their emotional, physical, and social needs, and 4) facilitate the transition from the field experience back to students’ lives on campus and/or home.
Field course faculty can most efficiently improve their teaching practice by encouraging the group development process. This presentation will describe techniques that can be used to facilitate community development among students in the field. Anecdotes from field courses and practical tools described in the experiential, outdoor education literature will be shared to illustrate how to teach better field ecology courses.