The field: an integral part of environmental education



“It’s really, really important that citizens learn to value their environment and understand the science behind the great ecological dilemmas we all face… study […] out of class. it’s on the ground […] where acting locally becomes thinking globally. – Professor Lord May of Oxford, former president of the Royal Society

A child’s cognitive abilities are best developed through experience. We know birds can fly because we’ve seen them do it; we know that touching a whistling kettle would burn our fingers because we tried it once and it hurts; we put on jackets when it’s cold because we know from experience what to do when the weather changes.

Using our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, we learn valuable life lessons on how to distinguish right from wrong, wrong from good, and our tastes from our dislikes. And throughout this ever-changing journey, one constant holds true: to truly ‘get it’, we have to experience it first.

This is why the fieldwork is the key to the learning experience of the students. When we experience we learn, and what we learn by experience we are unlikely to forget.

the University of Exeter, a respected member of the Russell Group, is a global institution that highly values ​​the value of relevant experience in the field. To his Penryn campus, each course offered by the College of Life and Environmental Sciences provides hands-on learning opportunities in the field. The College offers degrees in geography and biosciences, where students of both disciplines can participate in field courses during each year of their degree.

In 2002, the Field Studies Council (FSC) published a report titled: Teaching Biology Outside the Classroom: Is It Endangered? In the report, FSC stressed that it is time for fieldwork to become a mandatory facet of environmental education.

Almost 15 years later, the value of hands-on, on-the-job training has become undeniable. Stuart Nundy, an Outdoor Activities Manager based in Hampshire, UK, has spent a considerable part of his professional career studying the benefits of hands-on learning opportunities. His research summarized three key benefits:

  1. Fieldwork has a positive impact on long-term memory since the fieldwork setting itself is engaging and therefore memorable
  2. The residential experience encourages personal growth and greatly develops social skills
  3. The reinforcement between the affective and the cognitive is interconnected and interchangeable – each influences the other and provides a solid platform for higher education

“Residential field lessons, data collection exercises, going out and getting inspired by the environment – but in fact, really doing it, allows for a lot more in-depth learning once people return to the boardroom or back to the boardroom. library and that they actually felt it, touched it, felt it and took pictures, ”says Professor Brendan J. Godley, Director of Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, and director of a field course in biosciences in Kenya.

“Everything is a lot richer and deeper,” he adds, “It goes beyond the two dimensions of PowerPoint because they really had experiential learning. “

Life and Environmental Sciences students at Penryn Campus begin with local field lessons, exploring the natural environment on campus, on nearby beaches and in the scenic and geologically diverse Cornish countryside. For students of geography and environmental sciences, these trips might focus on geomorphological processes, water quality monitoring, or cultural geography, while bioscientists visiting the same spaces might learn about them. techniques for trapping mammals or mist nets.

Dr Andrew McGowan, Director of Undergraduate Field Courses and Head of Field Trips to Cyprus, Scotland and Kenya, says: “Cornwall serves as a living laboratory for all of our students, who benefit from a great diversity. of habitats, species and cultures activities right outside their doorstep. It is the perfect place to learn about data collection and study design techniques, highly transferable skills that students must master not only to earn their degrees, but also to compete in the job market once. that they leave the university.

Methodological expertise is developed during one-week residential field courses that take place during the second year of each degree. These more immersive experiences, in places such as the Isles of Scilly, Cypress and Iceland, give students the opportunity to interact more with local stakeholders who have a vested interest in the environment, including fishermen, environmentalists, farmers and scientists. Exchanges with these people help students understand the value of natural habitats and the importance of emerging issues at the intersection of ecology and society.

Professor Catherine Leyshon, Director of Education at the College, said: “The information we get from professionals working on real-world issues really improves student learning and also encourages them to think about how to apply. their skills in a career in the future. “

Professor Leyshon takes geographers and environmental scientists to California. “We begin the journey in the spectacular surroundings of Yosemite National Park,” she says, “where students work in an interdisciplinary manner on projects concerning the physical and cultural landscape, the environmental challenges of the park and the visitor experience. Half the group then travels to the eastern Sierra Nevada to undertake environmental modeling and explore the physical processes that shape arid landscapes. The rest of the students travel to the California Redwoods to study environmental and social changes in the coastal city of Santa Cruz. During the trip, field course participants interact with a range of experts on topics as diverse as water management, landscape restoration, environmental governance, homelessness, behavior change and community projects.

Field course experience for Penryn campus students ends with Fortnight lessons in the field, a unique two-week period in which more than 200 students and 30 academics simultaneously participate in field courses in six different countries. The destinations, ranging from the Bahamas to Borneo to Costa Rica, are hot spots for biology, geography, and environmental science.

During the Fortnight field course, students use their expertise to design and conduct mini-research projects while gathering new information about the natural environments in which they are working for the first time. They explore issues related to ecology, evolution, conservation, geomorphology, and animal behavior, while learning about the historical, social, and economic relationships between humans and nature.

The trips provide a unique opportunity to learn more about science communication, through personal engagement with peers, conversations with experts and, more publicly, via Twitter feeds dedicated to the Fortnight Field Course. The social media element of travel allows students to share blogs, vlogs, and photos that not only celebrate the beautiful habitats they work in, but also discuss the challenges associated with travel, finding innovative ways to cope. unexpected ground conditions, and tackle complex environmental issues such as climate change.

Students find travel difficult but invigorating. As Professor Godley notes: “A lot of students go home and say, ‘These have been the best two weeks of my life!’ It is a fantastic experience for them because they are inspired. They have experienced the realities of the problems and then have a much clearer idea of ​​how they might progress in their education or employment.

Follow Exeter College of Life and Environmental Sciences on Twitter

All images are courtesy of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

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