What environmental sciences can tell us about teaching in higher education

This is the third post in a series which looks at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching at a university level? In each post, I will be speaking to disciplinary experts from my university and seeking their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines. Cross-posted at Teche.

You can read the other posts in the series: What psychology can tell us and What economics can tell us.

Today’s post comes from Environmental Sciences which has fieldwork as a signature pedagogy. The conversation inspired me to head outdoors!

I spoke with discipline expert Dr Kerrie Tomkins who is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Education in the School of Natural Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering. Drawing on industry and research experience with NSW Government and CSIRO, Kerrie is passionate about encouraging student employability.

Kerrie has led several learning and teaching initiatives, including embedding employability skills into the first year curriculum of science and environment courses. Kerrie currently teaches in Environment Skills, Australian Environmental Futures, Science in Environmental Management, and Field Methods in Environmental Science.

For those outside the discipline, what is environmental sciences?

Environmental Sciences is a collective term for a number of subject areas including climate science, atmospheric science, earth science, geomorphology, contaminants, geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing. It also includes subject areas beyond the pure sciences, including environmental management and environmental planning.

Students studying environmental science want to address some of the challenges we are facing in understanding and managing the environment and the impacts we are having on the environment, now and into the future. They are passionate about climate change.

A signature pedagogy in environmental sciences is fieldwork.

Fieldwork takes students out of the classroom, away from showing and telling and being provided with information, and enables them to discover learning for themselves. It’s a sensory experience: students are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and doing in the landscape.

Listen to this one minute audio excerpt in which Kerrie compares classroom learning with fieldwork:

Fieldwork is closely connected with students’ career aspirations. If a student is interested in becoming a contaminated site officer, then they will be working and getting real-world experience on contaminated sites. Students might be interested in meteorology. Imagine going to the Bureau of Meteorology and seeing weather forecasting in action. Wow! Or for GIS and remote sensing students, going out in the field and verifying spatial data. Does what you saw from spatial imagery match what you see on the ground?

What do students say about fieldwork?

Students love fieldwork.

It is authentic, active learning. It’s the one thing that they always remember from their studies. They don’t necessarily remember lectures, practicals or assignments. But fieldwork sticks. One of the advantages of fieldwork over classroom-based learning activities is that we find students are one hundred percent engaged one hundred percent of the time when they’re there. In the field, distractions are minimised. There might be no mobile signal in some remote locations and students enjoy that! Students are enthusiastic and interested to know more about what they are seeing and doing. It is vivid and memorable in terms of the landscape, especially if it is an area that is very different to where they live.

There is also a social and collaborative aspect to studying in this way. Students make lifelong friends when doing fieldwork.

Take us on a field trip in words!

The journey starts when we leave the university campus. Here’s where the adventure starts. Everyone’s going to pile their bags onto a trailer and get in a bus and off you go. There’s always a buzz of excitement. Everyone’s looking forward to going away, especially if it is multi-day field trip. Everyone’s excited to be going somewhere.

When we get to the site, students say: my goodness, where are we? Let’s get the lay of the land. Students are in a different place, somewhere they have never been before. We have a couple of hours or half a day for reconnaissance. We go around to different sites where we’re going to be working and introduce students to the types of things they will be looking at and that they’re going to be doing on the field trip.

Third year students have more autonomy and responsibility to define their work, so they might come up with a project they want to investigate. They will work on it for the rest of the day and evening and present a proposal and method the next day. They will undertake that work independently. First year and second year students receive more guidance but we don’t supervise them constantly. Students can work at their own pace, they can relax, chat to each other, and take responsibility for what they’re doing.

Teachers tend to rotate around different groups and ask strategic questions. The work is about interpreting the landscape, so teachers help students connect the dots by pointing out aspects of the landscape and getting them to think and make sense of what they are seeing.

In the evening, we often keep working. Students might be doing some data entry and interpreting that data to decide what they will be doing in the following days. It’s a very good habit to reflect on action in an ongoing way, rather than getting to the end of the field trip and realising some crucial information is missing. They are long days and it is hard work but extremely rewarding. At the end of the field trip, students might share a story about what they have found.

When we return to campus, students work up their data into a report and submit an assessment task. It depends on the year level of the students and the goal of the field trip.

Most field trips are two or three days. The longest is eleven days in New Zealand. If it is only a half-day or one-day field trip, it will be closer to home. The emphasis is still on new sites where students can make observations and collect and interpret data. We also take them to sites to explore specific things like environmental contaminants or environmental planning in a part of the city where it demonstrates the planning challenges that have been faced in urban areas.

In this two minute audio excerpt, Kerrie describes an example where students observe the evolution of a river system:

How can other disciplines incorporate fieldwork?

For environmental sciences, fieldwork is key part of the discipline. You learn best about the environment by being in the environment. Think about your disciplinary context: how will students learn best about this field and this subject matter? And what sort of jobs and careers will your students have? What sort of work will they be doing in the future? These questions guide the learning experiences. How can we immerse students in those environments?

The key message for higher education teachers is: provide opportunities for learning outside the classroom.

The small-scale fieldwork that COVID-19 lockdowns required in environmental sciences offers inspiration for other disciplines. Environmental sciences teachers invited students to make the most of their home and local environments and outdoor spaces. Once lockdowns had ended, they continued to use the University campus and the local area for practical classes. It’s a matter of being creative when designing an out of classroom experience. What places can you make the most of that are nearby that are really valuable for students?

Don’t be constrained by the classroom and traditional methods of teaching and assessment. Get out there and have fun. There’s a challenge for everybody. If you don’t already do so, how could you include an out of classroom experience in your teaching so that it’s a memorable and authentic learning experience for your students?

Listen to the full 26 minute recording:

Download a PDF transcript of the conversation:

Image credits
Kerrie profile image: Source: https://mq.academia.edu/KerrieTomkins
All other images provided by Kerrie Tomkins

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