By Wiley author Barbara Murck
“We don’t need to go to lectures, we’re livin’ it.” – Cali, one of our fantastic students in the University of Toronto’s Ecuador 2012 Summer Abroad course.
I’m passing along this quote, just in case you needed additional reinforcement on the value of field experiences for students. Cali said this spontaneously while we were hiking up the volcano Bartolome in the Galápagos Islands, and it quickly became – for me – the quote of the course.
Certainly very few students (and very few profs) get the opportunity to visit the Galápagos, the Andes, or the Amazon, and we went to all three of them for this course. The trip was amazing – life-changing – for all of us, in many ways. Swimming with sharks, sea lions, and penguins, seeing a pygmy marmoset from less than 2 meters away, and hiking up the highest mountain on the Equator (Volcan Chimborazo) were some of my personal highlights.
The trip was more than just fun and eye-opening. It was also physically and mentally intense, and it had a very serious academic core. The ground we covered, both literally and academically, was impressive. We went from freezing in parkas and hats at 5300 m altitude in the Andes, to hot and sweaty in rubber boots in the Amazon, to snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean in San Cristóbal. Academically the breadth was just as significant. Between my own lectures and those of my Canadian and Ecuadorean co-instructors we covered everything from fisheries, tourism, and oil development to island biogeography, rainforest ecology, and invasive species to hotspot volcanism, subduction zones, and El Niño – and more.
For me there were some “small” moments that really drove home the importance and impact of teaching in the field. In the Galápagos I gave a lecture on atmospheric and oceanic circulation systems that most of my students had heard already in their first Environmental Science course, and probably in other courses as well. But teaching about the trade winds in a classroom in Toronto is one thing; asking students to monitor the wind every morning and check the clouds brings them to a whole different level of understanding. When they realized that, yes, in the Galápagos the wind actually does blow steadily from the SSE every day, all day long, the significance of the trade winds and how the whole atmosphere circulation system fits together really solidified their understanding. Walking upright in a lava tunnel on Isabela Island and measuring thick sequences of pyroclastics in the Andes demonstrate the power of geologic processes in a very immediate and physical way. Seeing penguins that are endemic to the tropics, and understanding the role of the cold Humboldt and Cromwell currents in moderating temperatures on land makes a connection between life and the physical environment in a way that is virtually impossible in the classroom.
Although it was truly great to have the opportunity to go on this trip to Ecuador with our 32 wonderful students, I do actually believe quite strongly in the value of field experiences closer to home. We have instituted a program of field trips for our introductory Geography students. There are 300 students in the course, and the instructor takes 100 to 150 of them at a time (with help from Teachings Assistants) on a series of field trips in the Toronto area. They visit housing projects, look at shorelines, take soil samples, monitor the weather, and look at urban development. For some of them it seems like it must be the first time they have set foot outside of their own homes, the world is so new to them. This is not the case, of course, but it definitely is new for them to be looking at their world through academic eyes.
We can offer this type of experience to our students. We can’t get all of them to the Andes, the Amazon, or the Galápagos, but we can make an effort to ensure that every student gets outside – preferably a little bit out of their comfort zone. Ultimately, if we want our lectures to be meaningful we need to get students away from the lecture hall and into an environment where it all comes together and makes sense.