Where is the classroom?

This may be an obvious question.   ‘It is inside in a nice warm room, filled with tables and chairs and fancy multi-media equipment’, I hear the majority of you cry. But really is it?

Or do you learn more by experiencing and doing? As an academic in the Earth Sciences, our teaching methods are varied and one of our key areas is field work teaching. Our classroom is therefore our planet and the environment we live in. It is the field work aspect of Earth Science degrees that generates the community atmosphere of these degrees and the element students often enjoy the most about their degree.

During a typical academic year, I will spend two to three weeks actively teaching undergraduate students in the field. The field is a slightly ambiguous term. Currently this means I spend time in the Lake District and in Iceland. This is a fundamental part of our degree as it brings the theory the students learn in the classroom into reality. It is often the place where students start to pull all their knowledge together and see the textbook come alive. It is in the field that we can see the 3D structure and visualise the environment in ways that could never be reproduced in the classroom.

The fact that we teach outside, often in remote places has its own challenges in itself (Figure 1). For many of us teaching these courses, the scientific aspect may be one of the simplest parts of a class to organise.  It’s the other aspects, such as ensuring the safety of the students in the field and coordinating the trip, that can be more time consuming. For those of you who teach in a classroom or lecture theatre, you turn up, the computer is provided and you can teach. For field work teaching, you have to go right back in to the basics and ensure you take everything you may require and know where you are going! You cannot just wander around aimlessly in a field in the hope of finding a specific rock with a trail of 30-40 students. Putting together a field class is a time consuming process, but one that can be extremely rewarding.

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Saunders Fig 2Figure 1: Volcanic outcrops in East Iceland (left). Remote interior of Iceland (right), can you spot the mini-bus?

The week prior to field classes is often spent running around the department locating projector screens, hard hats, high-vis vests, waterproof bags, acid bottles, hand lens, white boards, stationary, hand-outs, first aid kits, vehicles, emergency shelters and completed risk assessments. Suddenly academic staff have to turn themselves into tour operators as well as educators.

It is a time consuming processing and expensive, and you are always wondering will it be worth it, will the students learn anything? The evidence is positive: it is the most highly rated part of their degree. It is also one of the most staff intensive parts of our teaching, as we will spend the same amount of time in the field with the students, 24 hours a day for the duration of the trip. It is probably why Earth Sciences is known as a friendly degree with students generally at ease with the staff and willing to approach us.

The skills the students learn on these field trips are critical for their future careers. One of the pleasures of marking the field notebooks of such trips, is that you can see how the students have learnt during the week, gained confidence in their abilities and realised that by the end of the trip they can complete the assignment for the course that seemed impossible at the beginning of the trip (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Students learning fundamental field skills in the Lake District.

Another great aspect of UK based field work teaching is the ability to show our international students a part of the country they may not have visited before. In some ways providing a rounded experience of their time in Edinburgh. An interesting thought is whether the local UK students can learn from the international students by using involving them in their group work for example? Or are other factors such as the social background these international students come from dominant in the group they choose to work with in the UK setting? It’s a hard issue, but generally the international students in our first year classes integrate well, and work well, with the UK students. At this early stage when everyone is still acquiring the basic concepts the advantages of having an international cohort may not be huge. I believe this is achieved more in the later years where there may be more diverse geological experiences that the students can bring to the table.

Field trips are hard work for all staff involved, we spend the day out teaching and then return to run evening lectures and activities so often work until 9 or 10 pm in the evening. It is an exhausting experience for both students and staff, but not one we would change as the advantages far outweigh the negative aspects.

In the Lake District in 2015, we finished on a high (or a low as some people saw it). After six days of amazing sunshine, the final stop was completed in the snow (Figure 3), much to everyone’s amusement. By the time we had driven back to Edinburgh, most of the students had forgiven us for making them get off the bus in the snow and thanked us for our time. It was later when marking the field notebooks that I came across a student’s thoughts about the trip at the back of her notebook. This student had been dreading the trip and had really low expectations of it. The student goes on to say though, she had a great time, enjoyed the field (although the weather helped) and the mapping exercise gave her confidence in her abilities. This student finishes by saying that although the week was intense, she enjoyed getting to know her class mates and thanks the staff for all their hard work. This was really encouraging to see from a student and their perspective. Without any prompting this student provided evidence to us that the learning outcomes of this course were being achieved and all our hard work had paid off.

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Figure 3. The variable weather conditions that can be experienced during fieldwork teaching

About the author

Kate Saunders

Kate Saunders is a Lecturer in Volcanology in the School o Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh.  Her research focuses on the evolution of magmas in the sub-volcanic plumbing system and more detail about it can be found here.

All images are the author’s own.

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