Teaching with Online Field Experiences: New resources by the community, for the community

ANNE EGGER is the Executive Director of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and an Associate Professor of Geological Sciences and Science Education at Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA. CHRIS ATCHISON is an Associate Professor of Geoscience Education in the School of Education and the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH. Kurtis C. Burmeister is an Associate Professor of Geology at California State University, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. LAURA RADEMACHER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA. KATHERINE RYKER is an Assistant Professor in the School of the Earth, Ocean & Environment at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. BASIL TIKOFF is a Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison, WI.

Field camps and other significant field experiences often serve as capstone courses for students majoring in the geosciences. Typically, these four- to six-week experiences are intensive and immersive: students and instructors live together, eat meals together, and work together in the field on questions that are both physically and intellectually challenging.

In the early spring of 2020, as colleges and universities across the country shifted to fully online teaching and sent students home, it became increasingly clear that in-person summer field camps would not be possible. Simply cancelling the courses also was not an option, as many fulfill graduation requirements. For this reason, many programs looked to redesign their multi-week, in-person field courses into online experiences. To further complicate this daunting task, in most cases, instructors had less than a couple months to accomplish the transition to an online format.

A community responds to crisis

The authors of this article self-organized into a working group that facilitated a community response to the widespread challenges associated with shifting field-based capstone experiences to online formats. We first held a webinar to ascertain the need. The webinar attracted more than 150 participants, including several from outside the US, making it clear that many people shared our concern about offering high-quality alternatives to in-person field courses. After the webinar, hundreds more instructors signed up for an email list we had set up for them to get involved. The need for community-wide coordination and support was evident, and the level of participation provided the impetus to move forward with a full-fledged response.

At the outset, we recognized two critical opportunities in this challenge. First, the geoscience community as a whole possesses the expertise to design and implement robust online field experiences. That expertise, however, is neither widespread nor evenly distributed. We believed that, by bringing the community together to educate and support each other, we could collectively develop and share a set of resources that would fulfill the goals of field camps, even without being able to go to the field. Second, we believed that solving the first problem—helping the community design virtual field camp activities during the singular event of the pandemic—provided us with a once-in-a-career opportunity. We could use this need for widespread virtual experiences to address long-standing challenges associated with the need to increase accessibility and inclusivity in geoscience field experiences. Traditional, immersive field experiences require that students overcome a range of barriers to participation, including mental and physical challenges, financial concerns, cultural stigmas, and family obligations. Our realization was that bringing the community together to develop robust online field experiences would help all students in 2020 (and possibly summer 2021), but also have a lasting impact on improved accessibility and inclusion in the field and the discipline more broadly.

A spring full of activities

We started from the premise that online and virtual field experiences could meet the same goals in the undergraduate curriculum as in-person field experiences. How could we assure that the premise was true? We thought that the activities should be able to support students in meeting the same learning outcomes as the in-person experiences. While individual instructors undoubtedly have specific curricular goals for their particular courses, the geoscience community would need a common set of learning outcomes to guide the development of new online field experiences to ensure that they would be fully transferable between programs.  Thus, the crisis of the pandemic created an opportunity to articulate, as a community, learning goals for a capstone field experience in the geosciences.

Co-authors Rademacher and Burmeister led a one-day virtual workshop in April 2020 for a group of 32 geoscience educators from a variety of institution types, disciplines, and geographic areas. The group established a set of nine learning outcomes that serve equally well for in-person and virtual field experiences. These broad, consensus-based learning outcomes drove the development of online and virtual field experiences that instructors could incorporate into courses to support students. From April through July, we coordinated three sets of opportunities:

  • Co-authors Burmeister, Atchison, and Ryker coordinated topical working groups that came together around different content areas and techniques. Through discussion, these groups developed and built upon new ideas and supported each other in creating new teaching materials. Further, they took part in an informal review of these activities, making sure they met the learning outcomes, and these activities were then shared with the community as part of the collection for Teaching with Online Field Experiences.
  • Co-author Tikoff coordinated an informal webinar series in which community members with expertise in a given technology, or who had developed activities that could be used for online field experiences, presented their work. Recordings and resources from these "Tech Thursday" webinars remain available and have been incorporated into a web page highlighting the different technologies that one could use to develop and utilize virtual field experiences.
  • Co-authors Atchison and Burmeister coordinated a set of weekly webinars designed to support the development of new activities and the transition to online teaching formats by sharing new technologies and pedagogical best practices. These resources remain available at the Designing Remote Field Experiences website.

A community pulls together

Upon submission, new activities underwent a rigorous review process before being included in the new collection. Typically, about 10-15% of activities incorporated into a collection achieve exemplary status. In this case, however, more than 30% of the new virtual field experiences received exemplary reviews, which we believe is a testament to benefit of supportive working groups.

We are excited and humbled by the results of this project. While none of us would have wished for a pandemic, we are amazed by what our community accomplished by working together during a crisis. There were so many people who were generous with their time and intellectual products in order to make virtual learning work well for all students.  We were particularly impressed by the creativity and resilience of the participants.  Many of the 350 geoscience educators involved in this project used their experiences teaching virtual capstone programs in 2020 to contribute to a new collection of advice and strategies for teaching with online field experiences.

We were also impressed that organizations were nimble enough to support this effort on a relatively short time frame.  The work for this project was supported by funding through a RAPID grant from the Tectonics program of the National Science Foundation. We were able to make use of and repurpose digital tools developed by the Science Education Resource Center (SERC), and reach out to the community through SERC, NAGT, and the United States Geological Survey quickly and efficiently.  The Structural Geology and Tectonics division of the Geological Society of America provided support to facilitate rapid planning. Together, these organizations and the people that lead them enabled us to bring this community together quickly and effectively.

To share the resources developed and lessons learned even more broadly, the authors proposed a session at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, held online. There were so many high-quality submissions to topical session T240 - Teaching Field Geology without the Field: Providing a Robust Capstone Experience through Digital Resources that we needed four sessions to accommodate all of them. The presentations were rich and diverse, another sign of the dedication of this community during a very busy year.

We could not have imagined a better outcome. We wish to thank everyone who participated in any of these efforts, the hundreds of colleagues who contributed ideas, support, and activities, and the thousands of students who stuck with us through this challenging work. We hope that the results will continue to help our community to design more effective, accessible, and inclusive digital and field-based experiences in the geosciences.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2029920. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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