Field trips and field courses provide an unparalleled learning opportunity for ecology students because they provide hands-on training, expose students to real-world scenarios, and allow them to observe a variety of landscapes, ecosystems, and habitats. Field courses allow students to be inspired by the natural world and prepare them for field-oriented careers.
Sadly the number of field opportunities appears to be in decline as young people spend more time indoors and funding for “extras” becomes scarcer. The fear of serious incidents and subsequent lawsuits also appears to pose a barrier to field opportunities. However, established risk management practices and protocols exist in the fields of outdoor and adventure education, which expose students to higher levels of risk than typical field ecology courses. Institutions can reduce the likelihood of a serious incident in the field and increase their legal preparedness by properly managing risk.
In order to understand the risk management practices and protocols on university field courses, I distributed a short anonymous online survey about overnight courses to community college and university faculty. I distributed the survey on listservs for ecologists, geologists, and anthropologists. I gave the survey in 2013 (n=16) and 2015 (n=36), and am redistributing it in 2017.
Sixty percent of the respondents taught multi-day ecology field-courses. Sixty-four percent said that they felt that the risk management training, policies, and protocols at their institution were inadequate to manage the risks they faced in the field. Further, 85% agreed that a short online training would help them manage risk.
In response to this need, I developed an online introductory risk management course (RM101: Introduction to Risk Management) for faculty and administrators who teach and supervise field courses, but do not have a background in outdoor or adventure education. RM101 (educate-wild.teachable.com) uses a series of short whiteboard animation videos to walk participants through a risk management framework: faculty and administrators should identify risks in the field, assess whether these risks are worthwhile given the course objectives, decide whether to avoid, reduce, or manage these risks in the field, and regularly review their risk management systems. I hope that as faculty and administrators become more versed in the selection and management of appropriate risks in the field, we can collectively increase the number of field ecology course offerings in order to inspire the next generation of ecologists.