The importance of field trips in environmental science

One of my favorite parts of teaching this semester was bringing my students on site visits in the field. Spending time in nature was good for us (Kaplan 1995) and it provided a nice break from the routine of lecture. I put strong emphasis on the importance of our field trips because I truly think that it made the content more meaningful for students.

When we went on field trips, I had some lecture-type material prepared to review relevant content. When we went on a seal walk, I had planned to review migratory patterns. The best parts of the field trips however, were not when I was dishing out lecture review, but when students had time to ponder and discuss what they saw around them in the natural world. Making good observations is crucial in science, and it’s difficult for students to make observations in a classroom. You’ll need to get them into the field.

 

The lecture review I had prepared on migratory patterns morphed into a discussion of biodiversity, marine pollution, tidal patterns, and the potential effects of climate change on the harbor seal population. I didn’t lead any of these discussions, nor did I steer the conversation. The students had quiet time in nature where the goal of the field trip was for them to observe nature. Once the initial chit-chat of the field trip settled down, the students connected the lecture content to the world around them in fantastic ways. Some students were collecting shells and comparing their features. Others were more interested in observing the small crabs and mussels that had been exposed by the outgoing tide. And some remained focused on the harbor seals, who kept watch from the water.

CC Photo: SR Photies. Photo Title: Seal
Harbor seals kept watch from the water. CC photo: SR Photies

We also had field trips that were more structured with guided discussion. My class visited the Marine Nature Study Area in Oceanside, NY. Conservation biologist Mike Farina led us around the site and used his wealth of knowledge about the salt marsh ecosystem to educate students in the field, using their previous knowledge of ecosystems, population dynamics, and wetland ecology, as starting points. For field trips like this, it is very important that students are prepared ahead of time. They won’t be ready to move on to the higher level ecology discussions that can occur in the field if they haven’t got the background knowledge to draw from.

MNSA Field Trip
Mike Farina discussing salt marsh grasses as indicator species

Field trips also provide the opportunity to level the playing field between your students. Retaining lecture information is a difficult skill, and for some students they will need site visits for information to stick. Also, depending on your students background knowledge and lifestyle, they may be completely unfamiliar with wild spaces and ecological concepts. As I was teaching an introductory level course, one of my goals was for my students to leave my class with a better understanding of the natural world around them. Site visits allowed all of my students, those who frequently spent time in nature, and those who didn’t, to learn alongside each other and make meaningful connections.

Brant Migration
My students probably won’t remember my lecture on migration, but they will probably remember when a flock with around 1,000 migratory brants flew overhead.

I would strongly encourage other science educators to bring your students into the field. Take them on as many field trips as you are able to. There is no need for you to try and fill the entire visit with lecture or guided discussion either. Some of my students best learning came from their own observations and discussions.

 

1 thought on “The importance of field trips in environmental science”

  1. Recently, I read a line written on a piece of artwork that said something to the effect of “If children do not have a personal connection to nature than they will grow in adulthood not feeling any reason to protect it”. This sentiment really resonated with me and I think that field trips such as the ones you described in your post will give young people the opportunity to make that personal connection. I hope that more educators follow your lead!

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