Initial Publication Date: July 28, 2021

Blazing the Trail: Offering a New Framework for Teaching Field-Based Geoscience at the Secondary and College Level

NILO BILL ( is the Science Department Chair at Tahoe Expedition Academy, Truckee, CA.

There has been a general push in geoscience education to include more fieldwork as part of classes at every level, but there are very few resources for guiding geoscience educators in best practices forteaching using field-based techniques. A need exists for more intentional program design in field-based geoscience (O'Connell et al., 2020) and the framework presented here attempts to fill that need. Geoscience instructors teaching at the secondary, two-year, and introductory four-year college level should consider using it in the development, design, and implementation of any field courses, fieldwork, or field-based activities, striving to engage all four of its aspects every time fieldwork is done.

The fieldwork case studies presented here were conducted with high school students at Tahoe Expedition Academy, a high school located in Truckee, CA, that took place between Fall 2017 and Fall 2019. The aim of these case studies is to offer a framework to increase the amount and quality of field-based education in the geosciences at the introductory level. The framework is divided into four main structures: 1) open-ended inquiry, 2) student-generated datasets testing scientific claims, 3) interdisciplinary approach, and 4) deliverable to an authentic audience (see Table 1).

1) Open-Ended Inquiry

The broader benefits of inquiry-based teaching in the geosciences compared with traditional teaching methods has been shown to produce significantly higher achievement scores and more positive attitudes toward the science curriculum being taught (Mao et al., 1998; Chang and Mao, 1999). Open-ended inquiry during fieldwork is highlighted in the following case study of paddling the Colorado River, wherein students trace the Colorado River from the Hoover Dam in the United States to the border with Mexico, paddling by canoe over 50 river miles. The desired outcome of the fieldwork is the opportunity for an open-ended investigation with the question in this case being: Does the Colorado River make it to the Gulf of California? This question is useful because its answer is generally inconclusive or not straightforward from a cursory online search done by students.

A guiding question such as this is open-ended in two ways. First, the question does not have an answer that the students can readily look up at the start of the fieldwork; they have to do the fieldwork to answer the question, because its answer is complex and varies year-to-year and decade-to-decade. Second, the open-endedness of the fieldwork allows for other guiding questions to appear along the way. In this particular study, the question that next became the most pressing to the students was, what are the factors leading to such high salinity in the lower Colorado River? A high amount of instructor flexibility, knowledge, and preparation is required to allow for a change in direction of learner investigation; however, that flexibility allows for widespread student engagement and comprehension.

The other approach used for this fieldwork is creating cognitive dissonance through discussion of propositions such as these: Is water a basic human right or is it a commodity? Should the Colorado River be rehabilitated to its natural state even though it supports so much of the United States' agricultural output? This kind of open-ended pursuit, whereby students are attempting to answer a question that has not been covered by instruction directly or better yet has no definitive answer, is grounded in the constructivist literature (Lee and Fortner, 2003; Hartle et al., 2012).

The geoscience curriculum breadth in this fieldwork is clear, including geomorphology, hydrology, watersheds, erosion, and types of weathering and sediment transport. However, it was the open-ended inquiry that proved the most striking to the students in this study. By the end of the fieldwork, they were able to answer the initially posed question: Does the Colorado River make it to the Gulf of California? The fact that this question did not have an answer at the start of the fieldwork made this fieldwork inquiry-driven and particularly emblazoned on their memories. The students had to conduct the fieldwork to cultivate an answer. In applying this case study to other areas, it is important to choose a question that cannot be answered with a cursory online search.

2) Student-Generated Datasets Testing Scientific Claims

Dataset creation to prove an existing claim enhances students' understanding of the scientific method, scientific literacy, and critical thinking and is essential to developing the abilities of future scientists at the secondary and undergraduate level (Cavallo et al., 2004; Apedoe et al., 2006). Fieldwork that includes the creation of student-generated data analyzed by the students will not only deepen the learning experience for curriculum but also help shape students' general understanding of the broader research process and the real-world context of the academic work they are engaged in (Cummiskey et al., 2012; Olimpo et al., 2018). Students generating their own data and testing their own hypotheses through their own scientific investigation leads to gains in learning and motivation and reaches more students than traditional teaching (Lopatto, 2007; Coker, 2017). This applies well in field-based geoscience education, with a pertinent case study described below.

Rain shadows, where topography blocks precipitation from travelling to the other side of a mountain range, present an opportunity for students to use data collection and analysis to prove a scientific claim for themselves. In this case study, students created a record of soil moisture in a longitudinal transect from the Pacific Coast to Nevada across the state of California to document and test the existence of a rain shadow created by the Cascade-Sierra Cordillera. Students started at the Pacific Coast and collected soil samples, creating a ten-point transect to the Nevada border. By collecting, measuring, and calculating soil moisture percent values, the students created a dataset of soil moisture from west to east across the Cascade-Sierra Cordillera of northern California to quantify soil moisture on either side of it.

The students went into this fieldwork having only seen qualitative data such as true-color satellite imagery of the western U.S. in which they observed dark green colors on the west side of the Cascade-Sierra Cordillera and light tan colors on the east side, potential secondary indicators of rainfall. Through the process of quantifying the rain shadow with soil moisture percentages, they found that soil moisture did in fact decrease drastically from west to east with specific stair-stepped drop-offs directly lee of topography, proving the existence of a rain shadow quantitatively.

This dataset also allowed students to dive deeper into the nuances of the rain shadow. For example, they found a bigger rain shadow effect from the topography farthest to the west (i.e., where storm tracks hit first) compared to the crest of the Cascade-Sierra Cordillera to the east (even though its elevation is higher), because of the amount of rainout in the more windward topography. Further, this fieldwork allowed the students to experience first-hand the potential limitations of collected datasets. The students realized that their data may be seasonally affected and a rain shadow, being an annually averaged phenomenon, may show variation seasonally. This allowed them to plan future fieldwork to collect soil moisture data during each month of the year to account for that potential shortcoming.

This process of self-discovery and authentic investigation plays an important and positive role for introductory science students (Buck, 2006). Through their own hypothesis testing and experimental design, this student-generated soil moisture dataset allowed students to prove to themselves definitively the existence of a rain shadow in this area.

3) Interdisciplinary Approach 

Providing alternate inroads for students, other than directly through the Earth science curriculum, serves as an especially important endeavor for secondary school students, two-year college students, and non-majors (Wolfe and Martin, 2013). It has been established in general science education that the best way to learn and perceive complex phenomena of the real world is an interdisciplinary approach because science disciplines are not isolated from one another in nature and separation creates an artificial way to teach science (You, 2017). Even within the geosciences, it has been shown that taking an interdisciplinary approach (i.e., not isolating geology from physical geography) has learner benefits (Schiappa and Smith, 2019).

The next case study involves a ten-day fieldwork excursion relating two topics—the well-documented glacial retreat history of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State and the acidification of the world's oceans plaguing the nearby oyster farms of the greater Puget Sound and Salish Sea—to policy decisions surrounding government actors and greenhouse gas emissions over the 20th and 21st centuries. This connection of climate, geology, ocean chemistry, and government policy come together in a beautiful interdisciplinary web.

There are several ways to access the glaciers of the Olympics; this specific itinerary involved accessing Olympic National Park from the west via the Hoh Rain Forest trailhead and backpacking to the base of Mt. Olympus to observe the retreat of several glaciers, including Blue Glacier. The retreat history is well documented by the U.S. National Park Service; the historical imagery function in Google Earth Pro is another useful tool for students to grasp the retreat history since 1990 before going on the field excursion.

The content bridge between glacial retreat and ocean acidification is atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration. The students while in or out of the field can plot and compare the atmospheric CO2 ppm values for the last century and compare that to primary glacial geologic data in the field. A comparison of CO2 values to glacier length, for example, provides context for atmospheric CO2 and glacial health. Those same atmospheric CO2 values can be used to compare oyster larvae at varying pH levels based on the increasing COconcentrations. The fact that the oyster farms are so close to the Olympic Mountains glaciers make the connections that much more apparent to the students.

Looking at local, state, national, and international legislation and policy surrounding CO2 emissions provides the final interdisciplinary link. Fostering the logical next series of questions that students have is important. They may ask: What policies have worked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? What policies have not worked? What action can we take as students now? Geoscience educators need to be prepared for this and have a plan of action. Teaching with an interdisciplinary approach is clearly the aspiration in the science classroom (Boix Mansilla and Duraising, 2007; Spelt et al., 2009; You, 2017). Bringing this to field-based geoscience education will be of the utmost importance, amplifying the benefits of fieldwork to a broader student population. By connecting geoscience curriculum to the legislative process, the insights from the disparate disciplines combine into an overall more comprehensive understanding by the student (Newell, 2001).

4) Deliverable to an Authentic Audience 

The creation of written media for an authentic audience requires students to move beyond regurgitation and to the creation and application of new knowledge, delivering on standards while going far beyond them as well (Kixmiller, 2004). The case study presented next is the study of sea-level history through fossil and living coral reef in Barbados. The more general application of this idea to any fieldwork is the benefit of students creating a publicly facing deliverable as an outcome of the fieldwork or field course. Introductory students have a unique ability to interpret complex academic topics for public consumption in ways that academics are often incapable of. This idea, the lynchpin for introductory students creating deliverables for public consumption, has implications for broader impacts for researchers seeking proposal funding as well.

In this case study in Barbados, fossil coral observable in the terrestrial environment through multiple Pleistocene glacial cycles provided an opportunity for students to observe sea-level change on land. Studying records of Earth's past sea levels has clear connections to anthropogenic climate change and humanity's role in future sea-level rise. Besides being one of the main physical records of Earth's past sea level, the Barbados fieldwork also offered an opportunity for students to create a printed trifold brochure, aimed at the public tourism audience, that was available at the Folkestone Marine Park and Museum. Students developed a driving tour for interested visitors to compare the types of living coral found on the modern reef, accessed by snorkeling, to the same species found as fossil coral throughout the island of Barbados. Each species was identified by an underwater photo taken by the students of the living coral and its fossil counterpart found on land. Directions to locations where each fossil was visible in outcrop were provided through a QR code readable on a smartphone. In the brochure, the students emphasized the context of these fossils to sea-level rise.

For any fieldwork conducted, a deliverable to an authentic audience (an audience besides peers or the instructor) promotes accountability, high achievement, and high quality work and sets a meaningful purpose beyond academics (DeFauw and Saad, 2014). Knowing that a deliverable needs to be facing an authentic audience by the end of the fieldwork, especially multi-day, overnight fieldwork, can provide additional focus for students.

More intentional program design is needed in field-based geoscience education. This article offers a potential framework for instructors to use. Its goal is to increase the confidence of instructors in expanding their teaching of field-based geoscience as part of their curriculum. Conducting fieldwork allows students the opportunity to prove phenomena to themselves beyond being told in a classroom the way things are. Having a broadly applicable framework of best practices for fieldwork is an important next step, one that hopefully will continue to be built on.


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