The benefits of local field courses

Dr Becky Thomas (@BeckyMicrocebus;, Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences, at Royal Holloway University of London reflects on student learning and reactions to international vs local field schools.

Field courses are an important part of ecology teaching because they are transformative opportunities for our students and also key student recruitment tools.  When I talk to colleagues about these, we often discuss glamorous international destinations as well as remote UK field stations. The importance of such residential experiences for our students’ learning is enormous, as many of us have had the pleasure of seeing first hand. My own experiences of teaching field courses come from Madagascar, Borneo, Millport and Iceland. Residential courses do however, come with challenges, both for us and our students.

Iceland Group Photo
Group photo from a brilliant interdisciplinary field course in Iceland in 2014 – lots of happy students!

International field courses can be expensive, involve long flights (big carbon footprints) and we often face challenging conditions. They can impose barriers for some students with accessibility and financial issues, which means exclusion from these opportunities for some. Barriers are also faced by some staff, especially those with caring commitments. The future of field courses, and ecology teaching in general was a topic at our recent Horizon Scanning exercise and colleagues discussed some interesting and exciting opportunities, but these discussions also reminded me about the importance of running field courses closer to home.

At Royal Holloway we run a second year field course on our campus. You couldn’t describe our suburban campus as glamorous, but we have a good variety of habitats and some local sites of interest. We take a scaffolding approach to ecology field teaching, so students taking this course have already been exposed to a fair amount of on-campus field teaching. The course takes place after first year exams. Professor Julia Koricheva and I teach species identification and surveying skills across the three week course.

PFE field course
A successful sampling trip at a local heathland site.

Through a combination of lectures and practical classes students experience this local field course without many of the barriers previously discussed. They may not get to see ring-tailed lemurs, but many students begin the course unable to identify common UK bird and plant species, so there are many new things for them to learn about. Students still find the field course transformative, and I saw as much excitement when they found an eel in a local river as when we’ve encountered brilliant and exciting species abroad.

International field courses are likely to stay as part of our ecological teaching, but the humble local field course, when you have the facilities to host one on campus, has the potential to engage many more students in ecology. Employers want graduates to have even basic species identification capability, and these types of courses are ideal for developing these skills.

We want to know more about how other institutions run these sorts of local field courses. Do you run one on your campus? What are your experiences like? Do you face barriers in setting up a more local field course? Please share your experiences in the comments below.



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