Field courses help young people see the real world

by Andrew L. Rypel

It was perhaps unsurprising I wound up a field ecologist. Raised in Wisconsin, I spent almost all my childhood free time roaming largely unchaperoned in nature, pre-internet. It was there that I developed a deep love for nature, water and fish that would stay with me my whole life. It was a privileged upbringing. And yet somehow it was years later, when I was 22 and taking a university field course, that I finally figured out I wanted to pursue an academic career in fish and ecology. It’s unclear how many biologists can trace their paths back to experiences like these, but I suspect there are many. Field courses are so impactful, and we need them now, more than ever before. 

As a young college student, I struggled at my mid-sized liberal arts college to find a curricula that connected my outdoors interests (nature, fishing, camping, hiking) together. Years later, I recognized that field broadly as ecology, but at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was searching for. Most of the science courses and majors at my institution were annoyingly pre-health focused. I briefly toyed with the idea of a double major in English and a natural science field. Eventually I declared the best major I could find – environmental science (awarded through the geology department) with biology as a minor. At that time, environmental programs were somewhat rare at many US institutions, so I was happy enough I had majored in something vaguely reflecting my values.

Group photo from 2002 “Biology of the Southern Appalachians”. Yours truly looking dour and scraggly in the back row. Photo from Meredith Latimer.

I finally took my first real field course during my Master’s program in fisheries several years later at Auburn University (War Eagle!). The course was Biology of the Southern Appalachians, taught by Professor George Folkerts. It hadn’t been offered in years, and I had privately heard it was something special. Now, I could write an entire series of blogs on George, but most people who know Auburn, or natural history of the southeastern USA, or Tuesday trivia night in Auburn – all knew George. He was gentle, patient, brilliant, and a walking encyclopedia of biodiversity and ecology, especially rare and declining organisms like bog plants, salamanders, turtles, beetles, arthropods of longleaf forests – basically everything. I consider him one of my “academic parents”, and he was later a close friend.

Geoge took about 15 students including myself (~50/50 undergrad/grad) in vans for the better part of two months collecting plants and animals from Auburn, AL northeast to parts of Maryland. It was one of the best periods in my life. To help write this blog, I resurrected my old field notebook from the course to recall some of what we collected. For example, I see that we collected a black racer snake, hiked through a stand of smoke trees, observed cave bats, snorkled for freshwater mussels, observed rare bog turtles, collected aquatic insects, seined for fishes, captured a jumping mouse with our bare hands, used live traps for small mammals, sampled terrestrial snails, collected at least five species of cockroach (!), identified millipedes, collected a baker’s dozen species of salamanders, hiked to the top of Clingman’s Dome to see the completeness of the damage done to forests by acid rain and the balsam woolly adelgid, visited a cataract bog with stands of live mountain sweet pitcher plants (I described them as uniformly tall, beautiful, and with insects trapped in the pitchers). And this list was just for the first half of our trip!

From the dusty bottom of moving boxes – my field notebook from 2002. 

One afternoon, early in the trip, we were hiking through Joyce Kilmer National Forest in NC – famous for its old growth tulip trees. We’d been hiking for maybe an hour or so when George stopped at the base of a large tulip tree. He sat down, pensively, and swigged some water out of his canteen. He then said something I’ve never forgot, “Don’t let anyone tell you to get into the real world. Science and academics is the search for knowledge. And it’s more real than anything you’ll ever find in the “real world”.”

I’d never considered science as a career before then. Was I good at that? I had always figured I would get a fisheries degree, find a great job at a state or federal agency, and move back near home. Over time, I came to learn that I was good at science, and it became a passion. I wanted to understand how things worked – and I wanted to use that information to improve conservation, especially for my beloved fishes.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize my experience wasn’t unique. Many students elect to pursue environmental and science-based careers after taking field courses. We observe this frequently at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. Many of our students, alumni, and staff began their journeys after taking Ecogeomorphology (EcoGeo for short). The brain child of Jeff Mount and Peter Moyle, EcoGeo is an interdisciplinary idea, where upper level undergraduate students study watershed issues in multidisciplinary teams. The course culminates with an extended summer field trip to the watershed where field research is conducted. UC Davis teams have traveled to places like the Kobuc River (AK), Santa Cruz Island (CA), Grande Ronde (OR/WA), Skeena River (BC), Copper RIver (AK), and the Grand Canyon (several times). So many UC Davis students have started careers with these courses; it is one of the great and enduring legacies of the Center, and one that I would like to see multiplied in coming years.

UC Davis EcoGeo students and instructors are gathered in the Grand Canyon in the nightly Circle of Science, where each night a student makes a presentation on some issue relevant to river management. Then everyone discusses how the topic relates to different disciplines. Photo credit: Joe Proudman

Of course, field courses are inherently important and impactful. We also know these courses are effective at generating extraordinary learning outcomes. Elkins and Elkins (2007) demonstrated that for introductory geology information, there was significantly higher improvements in basic geoscience understanding for field course students compared to 29 other introductory geoscience courses from across the United States. Durrant (2015) showed that aside from basic intellectual gains, students of field courses themselves realized integrative learning gains had taken place while attending a field course. These results suggest field courses also work on sharpening metacognition or ‘thinking about how you think’ – considered one of the higher forms of human thought. 

Finally, field courses can reset our values framework. For many young people, especially those without privilege, nature has never been fully experienced. Our society, especially in California, is increasingly urban, populated, and disconnected from nature and wilderness. We work and manage within reconciled contexts – urban parks, working landscapes, backyard ecology. These frameworks are necessary to realistically preserve and manage the ecological function we have left. Yet there is also a need to visit, study and protect the best – wild places – where the true real word is right in front of you. It is important for humans to experience these environments. 

In an alarming study by Soga and Gaston (2016), we see that children especially are having decreased basic contact with nature. For example, the percentage of children who had never fished increased from ~20% in 1998 to ~50% in 2009. The percentage of children who had never climbed a mountain increased from ~50% in 1998 to ~70% in 2009. Other simple indicators of participation (climbing trees, catching bugs, birdwatching) have all declined in young people over time. This is scary – and may do us in faster than many other existential threats that we worry about! 

It is rightful to ask, “How will our society be capable of protecting nature if many have never fully experienced it?” Field courses don’t solve this problem alone, but they do address the root of the problem for those who take them. Field courses also represent an opportunity to aid in diversifying the fields of natural resource management and conservation, which are notably lacking in recruitment and retention of women and people of color. For our part, we will journey on. Maybe you’ll see some of our graduates out on the river, or fighting for science-based decision-making in a meeting or public forum near you.

Further reading

UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences education webpage, https://watershed.ucdavis.edu/education/classes/

Durant, K.L. 2015. The Integrative Learning Value of Field Courses. Journal of Biological Education 49: 385-400.

Elkins, J.T., and N.M.L. Elkins. 2007. Teaching Geology in the Field: Significant Geoscience Concept Gains in Entirely Field-based Introductory Geology Courses. Journal of Geoscience Education 55: 126-132.

Soga, M., and K.J. Gaston. 2016. Extinction of experience: the loss of human-nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14: 94-101.

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