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Nature's classroom: The transformative power of field work

Field work is dirty, unpredictable, time-consuming, and often a complete failure - just like real science! Forget the cookie-cutter labs and give your students the gift of true experiential learning. By doing so, they will put theory to the test while fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for science.

elementary school science students conducting field work insect survey

What are we preparing our students for?

One of the defining moments in my teacher education came when I was in university. I was in the final year of my four-year biology degree and decided to seek career advice from a professor in my program. I asked what the job prospects were for new bio graduates and his response shocked me. From his perspective, the only pathway to career success in the sciences was to remain in academia, which I had absolutely no interest in doing. I communicated this to him, asking if I might be able to find a decent position in food science, medicine, or wildlife biology - anything hands-on and practical. He said, completely seriously, "Well, I don't have any experience with that sort of thing. I've only ever been a professor." I was dumbfounded. This elderly scientist, surely an expert in his field, had almost no real-world experience outside of the lab. By that point, I had already worked on farms and in zoos, in landscaping, and in retail. I realized that he couldn't teach me what I wanted to know, and honestly, I felt pretty lost. I went on to fail his class - the only class I ever failed - unable to shake the feeling that I was about to enter the workforce with a lot of knowledge but virtually no transferable skills.

I did manage to graduate, but I couldn't find much work in the biological sciences so I decided to apply for a fish and wildlife management certification through a community college. It felt like a huge step back, but I was convinced that I needed to gain some actual job skills if I was going to have any chance of being what I considered to be a 'real biologist'. I was not disappointed.

In less than a year, I got my boating license, learned how to tranquilize a bear, mark and measure fish stocks, track animals wearing radio collars, and so much more. I did all of this in the field, working with corporate and government scientists, barely stepping foot inside a lab except to analyze what we had collected outdoors. This finally felt like real job training, and it's exactly the sort of energy I wanted to bring to my classroom when I started teaching science.

So what does field work have to offer your students? A great deal, I would argue, including many skills that cannot be easily quantified or assessed. Let me highlight a few of the benefits...

It's more realistic

Field work is far less structured than traditional schoolwork, even with thorough planning and clearly defined goals. This is a strength, not a weakness, as it more accurately mimics real tasks and helps students develop a variety of scientific skills.

students conducting field work, plant survey

With a multitude of confounding variables, field experiments really need to be extremely well-designed, but don't rob your students of the chance to develop their problem-solving skills by giving them all the answers. Instead, help them set realistic goals and then provide encouragement and resources as needed. This will cost you in terms of the time it will take to complete field exercises, but it will be worth it in the long run as students become confident and capable researchers. If this sounds a bit like project-based learning, that's because it can be! The deepest learning experiences your students will have are the ones they create for themselves, so utilizing field work in combination with PBL has tremendous potential.

It develops career skills

When was the last time you had to take a test at work? For many (or even most) careers, the answer is never. Instead of training your students to complete tasks they will never encounter as adults, why not give them projects and self-directed learning experiences that are based on real job skills?

students collecting garbage river cleanup plastic water bottles

You can improve the practicality of field work by contacting organizations or experts in your area (or online). You may find a few that are receptive to volunteering their time. In some cases, your students may even be allowed to participate in real research. At the very least, having the opportunity to ask a working scientist questions is a unique and valuable learning experience.

It builds grit

The physical and environmental challenges of field work are no joke and include long hikes, unpleasant conditions, and unpredictable weather. These difficulties are not planned, but naturally arise and must be dealt with. In doing so, your students will build grit and gratitude, which both have physical and emotional benefits.

field work, students on a long hike in a field

Your students will also grapple with failure - a constant possibility when conducting field work - but a valuable learning experience in its own right. It's not uncommon for a lengthy field experiment to produce no meaningful results, at least in terms of statistically significant data. That doesn't mean that your students learned nothing, however. They likely gained valuable experience, developed some new skills, and hopefully, made some lasting memories.

It connects kids with nature

Field work cultivates a deeper connection with nature. When students immerse themselves in the natural world, they develop a greater appreciation for its wonders and complexities. They witness firsthand the delicate balance of ecosystems, the relationships between species, and the impact of human activities on the environment. This instills a sense of stewardship and responsibility towards nature, driving students to become advocates for its protection and conservation.

student doing field work leaf analysis holding a magnifying glass

It has also been well-documented that nature experiences have significant health and happiness benefits, which might just be the antidote you need to help combat excessive screen time and mental health issues.

It puts knowledge into practice

Theories and models are great, but they are only as good as the accuracy of their predictions. When you give students an opportunity to explore scientific concepts in realistic settings, it has the potential to foster deep connections between the material learned in class and observations made in the field. It also provides an efficient answer to the question many teachers hate most: "When are we going to use this?". If students find that their knowledge has useful applications outside of class, they will immediately recognize its value and stop asking that annoying question!

measuring distance between trees, field work

It's collaborative and authentic

Many students dread group work for a variety of reasons, not least of which because it's often contrived and unnecessary. Not so with field work, which is typically done in pairs or small groups in order to maximize efficiency. Juggling the equipment alone can be a two-person (or more) job!

students reading a map while doing field work

I'm sure you've experienced group projects where a few students complete the work and the rest just stand around doing nothing. With field work, everyone contributes to the final data set, so the more students you have, the larger your sample size can be. This also means that everyone gets a chance to practice measurement techniques and improve their data collection skills. Furthermore, since a lot of field work involves surveys of large, varied ecosystems, having a team of researchers is essential. So is good communication, which is definitely a logistical challenge when working in large areas.

Summary of benefits

Once again, here are just some of the benefits of conducting field work with your science students:

  • provides realistic learning experiences

  • develops transferable career skills

  • builds resilience and grit

  • fosters appreciation for nature

  • puts theory into practice

  • encourages collaboration and communication

Embrace the uncertainty

It is almost certainly true that prescriptive lab work is easier to plan, conduct, and assess, and while there is a place for this type of exercise in science education, it represents only a small part of what science is all about. It also gives students the false impression that experiments are straightforward and usually yield clear results. Real science is messy and uncertain, requiring countless iterations in the relentless pursuit of truth. Field work forces your students to confront this uncertainty and navigate through it as they gain confidence and skills.

Closing thoughts and ideas for implementation

You might be thinking that this all sounds great, but how are you going to find the time and money to make it happen with your students? I'm happy to tell you that you needn't travel far in order to start using field work immediately. Conduct plant, bird, or insect surveys at a field or forest near your school. Dig some holes and perform a soil analysis. Conduct a biodiversity census of your school campus. Step outside and record weather data for a few weeks. Organize a stargazing sleepover at your school. Start a school garden and use it for experiments all year long. There is no shortage of activities you can perform just outside your classroom walls and no need to travel to distant or exotic locations. The important thing is that you simply venture outside the familiar. So make field work a part of your science curriculum and create transformative learning experiences for you and your students.

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