Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 1 of 2)

This is an unedited version of an essay I produced as part of module 1 of my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. I’m not massively proud of it as a piece of work, but I think it’s a reasonable discussion of some of the issues surrounding fieldwork – highlighting their value, as well as some of the challenges we face in Widening Participation.

I have an unusual educational role within the School of Earth and Environment, in that my teaching commitments are almost entirely field course based. As a result, very little of my teaching takes the form of the much maligned traditional lecture format (Powell, 2003, Mazur, 2009). Instead, I spend approximately 20-25 full days per year teaching in the field. This consists of a very wide variety of teaching and supervision activities, including small group teaching, short talks, demonstrating methods and skills, evening talks, and one-on-one supervision. Very few of these activities are passive or “shallow” in terms of their learning. Field trips in geosciences are generally synoptic exercises, applying classroom learned information in a real world context. Students are often asked to work completely independently to describe, interpret and summarise the geology of an area. A First Class field geology assessment shows evidence of developing thought, postulating hypotheses, and testing theories. In the learning theory terminology of Constructivists such as Biggs (1999), this suggests that geoscience education is already taking an optimal approach. Evaluating field teaching using the Kolb (1984) approach to learning as an experiential cycle would also look favourably upon our methods (Healey and Jenkins, 2000). Mapping field courses are a repeated cycle of geological observation (Concrete Experience), interpretation (Reflective Observation), forming hypotheses (Abstract Conceptualisation) and planning what additional data needs to be gathered to test those hypotheses (Active Experimentation). This cycle is repeated daily, and sometimes more often through the course of a field trip.

Despite learning theorists’ and the media’s apparent disdain for a didactic lecturing approach to education I personally believe that lecturing still has its place. In terms of density of information conveyed to an audience the lecture is beaten only by the written word. At some point, students require a grounding in the basics of a field to be able to apply that knowledge. We could not simply throw 60 students out of a bus in the Scottish Highlands and expect them to produce a meaningful geological map without the prior 6+ months of education on rocks, minerals, geological processes, etc. The constructivist approach to learning may still apply on a degree timeframe, but the lecture of basic knowledge is still a Concrete Experience required to get the students to the point where they can actively apply their learning. In my opinion it would be a misapplication of the pedagogical literature to omit this early educational stage.

Contextual knowledge as a foundation for learning is a subject which I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on as part of my own practice. Geoscience students utilise and develop several ancillary skills which are almost unique to the subject, and which are often unfamiliar to students prior to the degree. One of the unique and much publicised qualities of a geoscience degree is the importance and extent of fieldwork exercises undertaken by students. These are touted extensively by their proponents as excellent educational tools for developing spatial reasoning, team work, practical experience, and independent scientific thought (Petcovic et al., 2014, Kastens et al., 2009, Schiappa and Smith, 2018). However, this fieldwork builds upon a foundation which not all groups within geoscience education may have had the equal privilege of receiving. Geoscience field trips rarely, if ever, teach basic map reading and navigation skills, relying largely on the assumption that undergraduates either already have them or can pick them up rapidly whilst still keeping pace with their peers at recording data, identifying rocks, producing a map, and constructing and testing geological hypotheses. The reasons for this assumption vary, but are often down to the instructors’ own familiarity with maps and navigation acquired both through their own geoscience training as well as their pre-degree background. Liben et al. (2011) investigate this issue through the somewhat narrower lens of spatial reasoning skills as applied to a particular measurement commonly taken in the field. They come to similar conclusions that widely assumed levels of spatial reasoning are not universal amongst students, and that instructors should consider specific interventions for students deemed to be struggling in these notionally foundational areas. Liben et al. (2011) also specifically identify a gender gap in this particular area of ability, though they are cautious about their interpretation of its cause. This particular identified variation in learner ability is one of what may be many such areas of foundational skills or knowledge which is variable across a student population, and may correlate with gender or background. With the widening of the geoscience subject to encompass wider fields including chemistry, environmental science, and computational science, alongside the increasingly diverse populations studying geoscience degrees, this assumption of a level playing field of skills and existing knowledge needs to be re-assessed.

Historically, the majority of geoscience graduates have come from a fairly narrow demographic – predominantly male, predominantly white, and predominantly middle class or wealthier. This is, fortunately, changing rapidly at the undergraduate level, with cohorts becoming far more diverse in almost every sense. It is perhaps because of this less diverse history that traditional geological mapping training has been able to rely on prior experience of these skills. Map-reading abilities are a set of practical skills which are difficult to teach effectively in a classroom, instead they require outdoor practice as part of an extra-curricular activity (e.g. the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme), sport (e.g. Orienteering), or hobby (e.g. Walking and Mountaineering). Whilst high school students may have some experience of working with maps during A-Level (or equivalent) Geography or Geology (Note that A-Level Geology is not a core subject, and thus is often not taught in every school – often only those with additional resources) classes this experience is not extensive and often is only classroom based (Dalton, 2001). The outdoor pursuits mentioned above have participation rates which are also heavily demographically skewed – a Natural England (2015) study monitoring engagement with the natural environment concluded that “Those who were less likely to have taken a visit to the natural environment in the last seven days were those of BAME origin, those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability and those in the DE social grades”. Sport England (2018) report similar results, with the least likely participants in Climbing, Mountaineering, Orienteering or Walking for Leisure in socio-economic classification being NS SEC 6-8 (i.e. “working class”), and in ethnicity being Black, South Asian or Other. Assuming a representative sample of the larger population, geoscience students from non-white or working class backgrounds are far less likely to have experience in outdoor pursuits and may not have had the opportunities that their more privileged peers have had to acquire these assumed skills. Thus assuming prior knowledge of these skills is a diversity issue, in addition to an educational one.

I would therefore argue that broadening the skill base taught as part of a geoscience degree is an important measure in improving diversity, equal opportunity and access as laid out in the University of Leeds values and strategic plan (The University of Leeds, 2015), the Office for Students strategy (Office For Students, 2019), Russell Group policy (Russell Group, 2015), etc.

With consideration to my own academic practice I’ve made a personal commitment to do what I can to combat this inequality. This has first taken the form of challenging my own assumptions and privilege. As a white male raised by middle-class parents I was introduced to outdoor activities very early in life, and have had to check my own privilege with regard to assumed knowledge and skills. As a moderately successful geoscientist I evidently have a reasonable level of the required spatial reasoning skills that are vital to field geology, a survivorship bias which may not be typical to all students (Liben et al., 2011). I now attempt to consider field trip briefings, and instructions in the field from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with such experiences. This has led to many realisations of skills and advice which goes unspecified to students. I have developed a short lecture for the first year Pembrokeshire field course on navigation skills and compass use to help students with the basics, expanded from the micro-teach I delivered during this course. On an even more basic level I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to pastoral care on field trips, ensuring that students who are unfamiliar with the environment or levels of physical activity have the time and advice needed to help them. Additionally I have started to undertake external training in skills and activities which are complementary to geoscience education, such as walking and navigation qualifications (Mountain Training, 2019). These provide alternative perspectives and feature curricula targeting other audiences. As such there are many tools and techniques which may be applicable to my own teaching, indeed my micro-teach session was based on one such technique. The heuristic navigation exercise I used was modified from the training I received for my own Lowland Leader Walking Award qualification.

The basic contextual knowledge and ancillary skills required for fieldwork are rarely explicitly included in learning outcomes within the curriculum, despite being recognised as a “selling point” of the degree and one of the justifications for the extensive field days requirement for accreditation by the Geological Society of London (The Geological Society of London, 2019). In the framework of constructive alignment this is something of an incongruity (Biggs, 1996). The skills and knowledge are clearly desirable outcomes from the course, yet are not explicitly a part of either the teaching or the learning outcomes. Instead there appears to be an implicit requirement for students to know them or pick them up on their own if they wish to succeed. On the other hand, this is also true of a great majority of “soft skills” which students are also expected to obtain through the course of a degree. “Learn to outfit oneself appropriately for fieldwork” may never appear in stated learning outcomes, but neither does “learn to successfully produce a word processed report”. My personal opinion on this is that whilst documented learning outcomes may be overkill in this case, the importance of these skills should be communicated during pre-trip briefings and discussions during the exercises themselves.

In summary, my personal philosophy of field teaching is that pedagogically speaking geoscience educators generally do quite well at promoting deep learning of a variety of complex and interconnected topics. The existing consolidation activity of field based learning promotes deep reflective learning incorporating “soft skills” in communication, spatial reasoning, resiliency and leadership in a way which cannot be replicated easily in a classroom environment (Schiappa and Smith, 2018). The places where I believe there is room for improvement are in the foundational aspects and in the support of the students who we may mistakenly leave behind. In my own practice I have attempted to alter my mind-set to be more considerate of the diversity of knowledge, ability and background within the student body. I’ve integrated broader approaches to practical field teaching into my own lessons, and tried to explicitly explain foundational concepts which previously were assumed. In the wider context of higher education these measures should help address the key goals of widening participation from under-represented groups, narrowing attainment gaps, and improving student satisfaction.


BIGGS, J. 1996. Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32, 347-364.

BIGGS, J. 1999. What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18, 57-75.

DALTON, R. T. 2001. What Do They Bring With Them? The fieldwork experiences of undergraduates on entry into higher education. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25, 379-393.

HEALEY, M. & JENKINS, A. 2000. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory and Its Application in Geography in Higher Education. Journal of Geography, 99, 185-195.

KASTENS, K. A., AGRAWAL, S. & LIBEN, L. S. 2009. How Students and Field Geologists Reason in Integrating Spatial Observations from Outcrops to Visualize a 3‐D Geological Structure. International Journal of Science Education, 31, 365-393.

KOLB, D. A. 1984. Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Prentice Hall.

LIBEN, L. S., KASTENS, K. A. & CHRISTENSEN, A. E. 2011. Spatial Foundations of Science Education: The Illustrative Case of Instruction on Introductory Geological Concepts. Cognition and Instruction, 29, 45-87.

MAZUR, E. 2009. Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323, 50-51.

MEE, P. & MEE, B. 2011. Outdoor Navigation: Handbook for Tutors., Harvey Map Services Ltd.

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NATURAL ENGLAND 2015. Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Natural England Joint Report JP009.

NNAS. 2019. National Navigation Awards Scheme [Online]. Available: [Accessed 31 May 2019.

OFFICE FOR STUDENTS. 2019. Office For Students – Our Strategy [Online]. Available: [Accessed 11/06/2019.

PATTISON, P. & DAY, R. Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) handbook for participants.  Vancouver, Canada: The Instructional Skills Workshop International Advisory Committee, 2006.

PETCOVIC, H. L., STOKES, A. & CAULKINS, J. L. 2014. Geoscientists’ perceptions of the value of undergraduate field education. GSA Today, 24, 4-10.

POWELL, K. 2003. Spare me the lecture. Nature, 425, 234-236.

RUSSELL GROUP 2015. Opening doors: Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access.

SCHIAPPA, T. A. & SMITH, L. 2018. Field experiences in geosciences: A case study from a multidisciplinary geology and geography course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 67, 100-113.

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A week on the Fife Coastal Path – Day 3

On Day 3 we woke up in our startlingly comfortable bed and breakfast in Leven and tucked into what was probably the best full Scottish breakfast I’ve had in years. With Lauren’s feet still causing her some issues we decided to take the day easy, booking another night in the B&B and leaving most of our gear behind in the room. The bus service between Elie and Leven is pretty regular, so we’d be able to do a short recovery walk (only about 9 miles) and then bus back to our accommodation. Then the plan for tomorrow was to get the bus back out to Elie and continue from there.

I had absolutely no ulterior motives for wanting to spend another evening in the B&B with a television in the room. None at all.


The day began with a lovely stroll along sandy beaches around the whole of Largo bay lots of carbonate salt marsh wildlife, sand worms and shells to comb the beach for. The weather was a bit wild and overcast, but it was a nice change from the heat and scorching sunburn of the previous two days.

2019-05-18 10.57.30

Continue reading “A week on the Fife Coastal Path – Day 3”

Geologists in “acquaintances who drink beer” shocker!

The Independent on Tuesday of this week published an article by Chris Green reporting on the contents of emails between two unnamed individuals working for Cuadrilla and the British Geological Survey (BGS) which were obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The quotes selected from the cache of e-mails reveal (in dramatic fashion) the revelation that the two individuals in question appear to know each other casually – catching up over a beer and potentially going to a Leonard Cohen concert together. Damning stuff. The article is padded out further with some quotations from an attempt to organise an event (which didn’t actually happen) where the BGS and Durham University were contemplating organising an event to educate journalists about fracking.

Academic institutions are no strangers to this style of reporting, where troves of emails obtained either through FOIA requests or other means are pored over to attempt to cherry pick hints of impropriety. Climate researchers in particular are practically used to it. The “Climategate scandal” was founded on this very issue, where selective quoting and mischaracterisation of what those quotes meant was used to manufacture doubt into the scientific research being undertaken at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent investigations have vindicated the researchers completely. Other climate researchers such as Michael Mann have been hounded with FOIA requests by denier groups in an attempt to seek out more controversial nuggets of text. It’s a surprise then to see these very same tactics being used by an environmentalist group such as Greenpeace.

The case for impropriety here is extremely thin, so much so that I’m actually surprised that Greenpeace weren’t able to dig up anything which looked more damning. Who amongst us thinks that carefully about what we type? Can we really be sure that our own e-mails are any better? I’m sure if you look in the inbox of any habitual email user you can eventually find something which looks damning enough when taken out of context. How many of us have sent emails to old friends or colleagues arranging to have a catch up pint some time?

Not too long ago I received an email from a colleague with an attached Creation “Science” document. The e-mail read: “I guess we had it all wrong”. How does that look out of context? I know that my colleague had their tongue planted firmly in cheek, but is that how it would be reported? Similarly, when I won a BP sponsored presentation prize I proudly joked to my collaborators – “I guess I don’t believe in climate change now!”. Individuals seeking to imply relationships between myself, petroleum researchers and employees of the British Antarctic Survey would need to look no further than a series of regular e-mails with the subject “Total Choon!” linking to various music videos.

We all have ill-advised statements sitting in our outboxes, whether they’re jokes or poor word choices. This latest “scandal” isn’t even that, it’s an attempt to cast aspersions on a pair of individuals based solely on their social associations.

Geologists are a sociable bunch, we have a well-known love of beer, and we tend to know our fellow graduates well. Three or more years of shared field trips in cramped, remote hostels with terrible weather tend to form lasting bonds. Friends from my undergraduate degree work across the world, some in academia, many of them in industry. A geologist in the BGS and a geologist in Cuadrilla knowing each other and potentially being friends should hardly be a surprise in this context. The association between the two does not imply any form of impropriety or shady goings on. Indeed many of us maintain friendships with colleagues working in other fields for the purpose of potential future collaborations as well as social engagements. I am working on a PhD in climate research, the fact that a few weeks ago a friend who works for a large multinational oil company slept on my couch doesn’t influence either of our work/research. That said, he did e-mail me this today:

“Hi Bob, how are things

Fancy catching up over a beer sometime – would be interested to hear more on your research into climate. You’ve got a wonderful field location, would be great to find oil out there.

p.s. hope Greenpeace doesn’t read this!

[Anonymised oily friend]

#sarcastic email”


Disclosure: I work as a PhD Researcher at Durham University. However I am not associated with any petroleum or fracking researchers (except for Friday evening beers!). I do enjoy some classic Leonard Cohen tunes.