The Efficacy of Field-Based Education

In the summer of 2014, I found myself a few miles up Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park watching a sow and two grizzly bear cubs saunter through the marsh. Their presence was quiet and graceful; the group of us, 15 undergraduate students and four instructors, including me, became transfixed. Here we were in one of the wildest places in the lower 48, finishing up a lesson on ecological systems and apex predators, and here were three grizzlies, walking through our classroom. It was all too seamless.

At the time, I was a graduate student in the Teton Science Schools Graduate Program and was instructing the Rhodes College Rocky Mountain Ecology course. During the course, students grappled with the complex problems facing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), delved into collaborative research projects, and gained a depth of knowledge that transferred from the Rocky Mountains back to the southern landscape where their college is based. At least this is what I perceived.

With the ever-growing abundance of conversations surrounding STEM education, programs such as the Rocky Mountain Ecology course have the potential to answer a call to action to fundamentally change post-secondary education. For undergraduate students, a certain level of scientific and ecological literacy is essential for understanding, and potentially catalyzing change in, complex social-ecological systems. Where mainstream undergraduate science courses tend towards large lecture halls and pre-developed labs, this course provided an opportunity for students to experience interdisciplinary, hands-on science.

The Rocky Mountain Ecology program looks to strike a fundamentally new chord in science education practices. Here students from every department, from law to environmental science, and English to political science, come together to experience the GYE. In the process of bringing a variety of students together, impelling them into discussions, and providing them with the tools for research and inquiry, something unique and powerful happens. But does it actually create a change in the students’ scientific and ecological literacy? If so, in what ways?

The fall after I instructed the Rocky Mountain Ecology program I had the opportunity to answer these questions and see if this course was in fact answering a call for reform in science education. With the data collected (pre and post-tests, transference papers, and audio recordings of class discussions), I was able to both qualitatively and quantitatively pinpoint that students were, in fact, increasing their scientific and ecological literacy. More specifically, students were using systems thinking, articulating ways to create change, recognizing their own roles within the environment, and last but not least, transferring this knowledge and understanding back to their own areas of study.

The course design was intentional in building upon students’ previous backgrounds as well as scaffolding each week on the next. In the first week, students spent time in Grand Teton National Park, where they were exposed to core science and ecology subject matters, such as community ecology, resiliency loops, and the scientific process. While some students came in with a strong science background, other students had never been exposed to ecology. This first week provided students with a common language to build on. As one student said, “I’d known what ecology meant on paper. But getting to come out and look at the different tree communities and realize that there’s a 100 different reasons why [they are] there, brought it more than [any] textbook could of for me.” During the second week of the course, students traveled to Yellowstone National Park, where they talked with local experts about wolf re-introduction, observed wildlife, and saw for themselves the direct effects of disturbances such as wildfires and climate change. This week, students were not only learning the subject matter but were also gaining personal connections to the place, the content, and the issues. The last section of the course empowered students to apply their knowledge in an extensive, collaborative research project. It was through this research project and final course discussions that we saw students transferring their knowledge of western ecosystems back to southern ecology, while also thinking about how science and ecology could influence their future career choices. As one student reflected, thinking about his future, “I [am] gonna go with my career, law, maybe environmental law, I think that would be awesome. But I don’t think it matters where I’m gonna go cause I am going to be passionate about incorporating what we’ve learned here and the elements of what we’ve learned here into my way of thinking wherever I go.”

As the issues that face our world become increasingly more complex, it will likely be undergraduate students, like those on this course, who will be able to think critically and transfer knowledge from one subject area to another to come up with much needed solutions. The partnership between Teton Science Schools and Rhodes College provides students with a learning experience that is not only effective, but is also life-changing. At the same time, it provides graduate students like me with the chance to see and experience science education beyond the typical lecture hall and lab setting. This program, and the collaboration between the two organizations, is an example of how undergraduate field-based programs could reform post-secondary education, challenging students to think critically to find solutions to environmental problems while also increasing their scientific and ecological literacy.

When I think back to that day up Slough Creek, I’m still in awe. I remember so distinctly my co-instructor pointing out the bears, the guttural disbelief I had, and the wave of realization that hit me: this is why I do what I do. To educate is one thing; to let the place speak for itself is another. I so cherish the opportunity to have been a part of a program where students were able to experience a subject for themselves and, from that direct experience, draw their own conclusions and make their own connections.

Information in this blog from: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2011. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Final Report. Washington DC; Mapp, Kim J. 2015. “Science and Ecological Literacy in Undergraduate Field Studies Education;” National Research Council (NRC). 2009. New Biology for the 21st Century. Washington DC. National Academies Press.

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