Real and Virtual Fieldwork: "Why Does This Place Look the Way it Does?"

All the major topics in The Teacher-Friendly Guides™ were built upon observations of the natural world, and these observations are the clues that scientists use to reconstruct the history of the Earth. Shelly fossils along the Himalayas tell of ancient sea floors that have been uplifted into mountains. Ripple marks that have since turned to stone tell of ancient shorelines. And scratches along the bedrock in Central Park tell of massive glaciers that— some 20,000 years ago—created a skyline much different than the one of steel and glass found in New York today. A number of forces and processes have made seas, forests, deserts, and the life those ecosystems hosted appear and disappear from the landscape over the course of geologic time. Many of these changes left behind hints that we can interpret today when we tell the story of a place. That massive glaciers once advanced as far south as New York is not a conclusion derived from mathematical modeling in a lab;; it is instead evidenced by not only those scratches, but also by a host of observed glacial deposits that litter not only New York, but much of northern North America.

The story of a place is written in its landscape, rocks, fossils, and biota; fieldwork investigations help scientists—and students and teachers—tell that story.

Introducing students to the practice of fieldwork can be a tremendous experience. Its central role in the education of geoscientists makes fieldwork a “signature pedagogy” in the preparation of professionals within the field, and fieldwork warrants a larger place in the K-12 curriculum. For these reasons, real and virtual fieldwork practices are well suited for addressing both The Next Generation Science Standards and The Common Core Learning Standards. Fieldwork as a topic is also fundamentally different from the other chapter topics in this guide. Therefore, this chapter is somewhat different in structure and is significantly longer than the other chapters in the Guide. The chapter begins by laying out some of the rationale for engaging in real and virtual fieldwork, and it then addresses some of the nuts-and-bolts issues for planning, carrying out, and documenting fieldwork with your students.

Exploring local natural history through inquiry-based approaches emphasizes critical thinking. And by conducting such investigations, students have taken a tremendous leap: they are not merely learning about science; they are doing science! But getting students into the field can be difficult. An alternative is for the educator to visit the field on his or her own time, returning to the classroom with a series of images and specimens that permit a Virtual Field Experience (VFE). Virtual fieldwork offers the opportunity to explore an area without leaving the classroom, and it allows multiple “visits” to a site. VFEs can also enhance and extend the experience when actual fieldwork is possible. The Earth is a system, after all, and any one site—virtual or real—can display a host of natural phenomena, from simple erosion and deposition to the principles of superposition and faunal succession to the formation of ripple marks or mud cracks. By adding to a VFE year after year, you can also document changes within the environment, such as changes to a stream’s course, the succession of an ecosystem, or the nature of human disturbance. Ideally, virtual fieldwork in the classroom captures the active experience of a scientist examining an area: It provides opportunities to actively explore, discover, ask questions, and make observations that help to answer those questions, ultimately allowing students to develop educated responses to the question “Why does this place look the way it does?”

Commonalities of Virtual and Actual Fieldwork

This chapter addresses both actual and virtual fieldwork and the many connections between them. The process of making VFEs, at least in the ways we lay out here, involves doing actual fieldwork. Much of the work of making a VFE involves simply following good fieldwork practices in combination with a heightened attention to sharing the experience with students or other learners. While VFEs can be used in place of actual fieldwork, they can also be used to both prepare for and reflect upon actual fieldwork. Engaging students as partners in the creation of VFEs is an opportunity for teaching through inquiry while also building a resource that is useful to people outside of the school, as well as to future students. What follows addresses all of these possibilities.

NASA scientists routinely conduct actual fieldwork remotely.

We also draw attention to the distinction between fieldwork and field trips. We strive to engage learners in figuring things out, while field trips—whether actual or virtual—are too often characterized by trip leaders pointing things out. Building in the opportunity for genuine discovery is challenging but promises to yield longer-term engagement and understanding.