Backyard Field Trips: Bringing Earth Science to Life on Campus

M. Francek leading a campus field trip at Central Michigan University.
Dr. Francek leading a discussion at a stop on his campus-based field trip.
Mark Francek
Department of Geography
Central Michigan University
Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859

Intended Audience:Undergraduate students in introductory geology classes


This field trip takes place on Central Michigan University's campus and is a model for how educators can conduct a local, campus-based field trip.

Suggestions for modification

Instructors will need to design the backyard field trip to take advantage of the local campus setting. Some campuses will be blessed with abundant ornamental stones, bedrock exposures, streams, and wetlands; others will be limited to concrete pavements and an occasional tree. As featured in this field trip, however, miniature weathering and fluvial features will be found in many locales.

There will be campuses where many of the features described in this field trip will either not be present, or will be difficult to observe. For such locations, the sky is still available for study. What do clouds indicate about current and future atmospheric conditions? How can contrail length or sky color be used to interpret atmospheric moisture? Where does the sun rise/set and how does sun altitude vary at different times of the year?

Biogeography can also be featured in field stops. Are most trees on campus native or exotic? Were soil and aspect (north vs. southern exposure) taken into consideration when the trees were planted?


The purpose of this field trip is to reinforce earth science concepts using examples found on campus. One does not have to travel to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls to reinforce many of the concepts discussed in class. This trip focuses on weathering and fluvial features, rock types, and biogeography but can be adapted to suit the interests and environment of the instructor.


The field trip is designed for a variety of educational levels from primary to advanced undergraduate, with the instuctor adjusting the content of the field trip to suit learning objectives. The beauty of backyard field trips is that these outings can be designed for five to fifty minutes, don't require permission slips or arranging transportation, and don't waste significant amounts of precious class time getting to the field site. I've successfully run backyard field trips with up to forty students.


The goal is to reinforce class concepts with local field examples found right on campus.


Decorative Image
Biotic and physical weathering on a south facing campus building.

To meet field trip goals, students are required to answer a set of written questions before the conclusion of the trip, complete concept sketches, or carry out simple field tests.

Notes and Tips:

Students can become easily distracted on a campus field trip. Heavy machinery, for example, can drown out your lecture. Some students would rather watch interesting people, automobiles, or airplanes pass by than listen to you. The weather may be less than optimal, making note taking difficult.

Holding students accountable for their learning by requiring them to answer a set of written questions before the conclusion of the trip helps keep students more task oriented. In addition, involving students with simple field tests with magnifying glasses, compasses, or GPS units will better engage students.

Graded concept sketches are another method for involving students in backyard field trips. Concept sketches are simplified sketches demonstrating student understanding of a field stop. Students draw a feature being discussed at a field stop to 1) identify the feature, 2) list the processes responsible for the feature, and then 3) characterize the relationship between features and process. Features and concepts typically are placed in boxes with relationships illustrated with annotated arrows. (See Johnson and Reynolds, 2005) for a complete discussion on the use of concept sketches)

Assessment and Evaluation:

Student understanding can informally be assessed through verbal questioning. More formal evaluation can take place through responses to written questions and rubric based concept sketches.

Materials and Handouts:

This page includes a copy of the field guide which can be adapted for your particular campus setting. Also included is a copy of instructions for creating a field concept sketch. A rubric is included.

References to Supplement Field Guide:

Francek, M. 1996. Using Campus Field Trips in Introductory Physical Geography Classes, Journal of College Science Teaching, 25, 1996, pp. 395-399.

Johnson, J. and Reynolds, S. 2005, Concept Sketches - Using Student and Instructor generated, Annotated Sketches for Learning, Teaching, and Assessment in Geology Courses, Journal of Geoscience Education, 53, 1, pp. 85-95.