Despite advancing technologies that have almost completely digitized most aspects of the oil and gas industry, a geoscientist’s ability to understand hands-on concepts and details from the field perspective is still coveted by employers. A person might have easy access to a calculator to perform basic math functions, so to speak, but the need to understand the concepts of multiplication and division remains paramount.
“You’ve got to know the rocks,” said Christopher Keane, director of Geoscience Profession and Higher Education at the American Geosciences Institute. “Field skills are critical for well-rounded geoscientists. They are still considered the capstone in development.”
Yet, a 2018 AGI Status of the Geoscience Workforce study found that undergraduate field camp attendance for geoscience students has been decreasing. Most recent data shows that between 2014 and 2017, field camp attendance went from 3,584 to 3,322 students nationwide. “If this trend continues, then either the available field camps have reached their maximum capacity or the cost of attending field camp may be limiting participation,” reported AGI.
Lori Summa, an AAPG Member and retired geologist with ExxonMobil said some academic departments are de-emphasizing field camps because they are costly and difficult to adapt to non-traditional students who may have limited flexibility in their schedules during the summers – a common time for field camps.
After participating in a 2014-18 series of summits at the University of Texas’ Jackson School of Geosciences that explored the future of undergraduate geoscience education, Summa said that employers stressed that field experience should be on the resumes of geoscience graduates.
“You need to get out on the rocks. They are the ground truth,” Summa said.
In addition to obstacles related to time and cost, universities are encountering a new hurdle: a growing bias among students against field work, she added. Often seen as manual labor or blue-collar work, some students intentionally avoid the field.
So how do educators steer students back into the field? Take them to formations steeped in geology and give them an opportunity to have an “Aha!” moment, said AAPG Member Eric Riggs, associate professor of Geoscience Education at Texas A&M University.
Riggs, who once worked in sales for a printing company in Los Angeles, started attending night school at age 24 to study geology, intrigued by the causes of earthquakes. A class field trip to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and conducting geologic investigations in the field allowed his passion for geology to take shape.
“I realized it was something I was willing to quit my job for and go back to school full time to do,” he said. “An early field experience can capture a student who has an interest in the geosciences but who didn’t fully realize that interest was there.”
Now, Riggs works to give his students similar experiences. “It sounds simple, but most rocks are outside, and you can look at all kinds of geologic phenomenon in their full and rich context,” he said. “You can study bits and pieces in the classroom, but it doesn’t come together in its full glory and messiness until you get into the field.”
Solving geological problems in the field allows students to see the transfer of ideas from many sub-specialties into one integrated problem. While that can be done in the classroom, the field is a much more efficient and effective environment.
The field helps students hone cognitive skills and develop the ability to make decisions in a spatial context. They learn to plot paths for collecting data and build models for potential outcomes.
“It trains your mind to think like an investigator, like a geologist,” he said.
Bringing students outdoors allows educators to take a break from teaching technology and to teach thinking skills – right down to mapping outcrops and taking measurements by hand.
“They learn to recognize what’s important in a messy field setting and to ‘disembed’ what’s important,” he added.
Visualizing the subsurface is difficult, Riggs said, and it helps to see the Earth’s layers in person. He related an experience from a 2005 trip to Rainbow Basin, a common mapping location in the desert near Barstow, Calif.: “One of my students jumped out of the van and looked at a cross-section of a canyon wall and asked, ‘Is that a syncline?’” Riggs recalled. “He was seeing a structure we had discussed in class for the first time in the third dimension. That kind of insight you can carry into your career. You get it because you’ve seen it and stood inside it.”
Riggs has also worked with Native American students and tribal authorities who have a large degree of sovereignty over their land and therefore primary responsibility for protecting it. In these territories, it is imperative that students and environmental management staff have a solid grasp of the geosciences.
To help pique students’ interest, Riggs conducted several summer field experiences to teach basic geoscience principles at the La Jolla Reservation north of San Diego.
He recalled a time when he and a female student held a measuring tape across the San Luis Rey River to calculate the amount of water flowing downstream. “Are we doing science right now?” the student asked. “Yes, this is science. It’s pretty cool, huh?” Riggs responded. “She said, ‘Whoa!’ It never occurred to her that she could use science to serve her community and have fun at the same time. Field experiences can be very powerful.”
So, if ever asked by his administration, “Why am I giving you a four-wheel drive and tents to take students camping?” his response is simple: “You cannot reproduce this fully in a campus environment. There is no substitute to managing the risks and dealing with logistics than actually going into the field.”
The ‘New Normal’ of Distance Learning
As educators like Riggs work to create rich and memorable field experiences, they have hit a barrier for the upcoming summer. COVID-19 has essentially shut down plans for field camps worldwide. In an unprecedented effort to plan field experiences that simulate the real thing for thousands of students around the globe, all eyes are on Christopher Atchison, an associate professor of geology and science education at the University of Cincinnati.
Atchison is known for organizing the International Association for Geoscience Diversity in 2008, after he created an accessible field experience to support students with physical disabilities. Using LiDAR surveys and images of Mammoth Cave National Park, students who were wheelchair users tested his virtual field trip by comparing it against the real cave, and it was a tremendous success.
“It changed their lives and mine in the process,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t realize that we as a discipline were marginalizing people who aren’t like us.”
Since that time, the IAGD has become a global network of geology instructors sharing instructional materials they might have created under similar circumstances. Over the years, desk drawers have opened, custom plans for individual students have been dusted off and shared. Such resources have provided opportunities for all geoscience students to experience the “outdoors” through accessible field trips.
Today, because of the pandemic and social distancing requirements, “all of a sudden everyone has an issue with accessibility,” said Atchison, who has become the go-to person to organize a plan to virtually bring geoscience students in the “field” in dozens of countries this summer.
After taking on the task in mid-March, Atchison and colleagues have recruited more than 250 educators from as far away as New Zealand and throughout Europe to collaboratively design field activities to be taught through distance learning. They are designing learning experiences across nine topical areas identified as areas of immediate need for the summer 2020 field season, including:
- Learning Objectives and Assessment for Field Experiences
- Virtual Class-Related Field Trips
- Developing a Community-Based Virtual Field Camp
- Virtual Hydrogeology/ Environmental Field Experiences
- Virtual Geophysical Field Experiences
- Virtual Marine Geology/ Sedimentology Field Experiences
- Working with Virtual World Technologies
- Digital Tools for Enhancing Virtual Field Experiences
- Non-Field Camp Capstone Experiences
Educators are also being encouraged to include Universal Design in this summer’s virtual experiences, including:
u Multiple representations of the content to reach different students with different needs
u Multiple means of engagement with the material presented
u Multiple means of action and expression for students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the material
All working groups presented formal “field experience” scenarios by May 1. Although they are still in the works, ideas that have been tossed around include online applications for data collection, synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and using Google Earth or aerial photography for images, Atchison said.
“The idea is to have the same level of seeing and experiencing the field, ‘collecting’ data, and making interpretations,” Atchison said. “But this effort is merely to mitigate the current situation and not replace the field. We cannot replicate what we do in the field through distance learning.”
While these efforts will most especially help students required to participate in a field camp to graduate, Atchison believes the experience will have a farther-reaching effect.
“What’s great is that more people are aware of accessibility issues of working in the field,” he said. “Hopefully, as a result, we will have some options for people who cannot get into the field, period. It can have a much broader impact than the current crisis.”