Just Go (and Don't Stop)

The minimum requirement for conducting fieldwork is your own sweet self. This chapter discusses a wide range of tools and approaches, but doing fieldwork of any (safe) sort that doesn’t damage the site is a key objective. The tools and approaches discussed in this chapter will extend your senses and help you to capture the experience in ways that will make it easier to share with students. Work within your comfort zone (but perhaps at its edge) and at a pace appropriate to what life allows, and gradually build your virtual representation of the local environment over the course of years, increasing student participation in the process as time goes by. Use the local landscape to nurture skills within your students that will allow them to read any type of landscape. Through this process, your students can teach members of your community about the story of your site while also creating and extending resources that can teach other learners around the country about where you live. Building a deep understanding of place through VFE development and then comparing your local environment with VFEs created by other teachers and students is an excellent way to use the local environment to understand the global environment.

Whether the fieldwork is real or virtual, it can either involve a single visit or be extended over many, many visits. Scientists may reach points where they have figured out particular pieces of the puzzle when understanding the nature of a site, but they never fully understand all aspects of a place’s story. Fieldwork, therefore, is something that is never “finished.” Whether it is the second or seven-hundredth visit to a site, there is always more to discover. This is part of what makes science fascinating! It connects to the idea that while fieldwork may focus primarily upon a single topic, researchers (whether K-12 students, educators, or professional scientists) who develop a deep understanding of the story of a place must understand the roles of geology, ecology, climatology, anthropology, and more. Of course, this type of understanding will not come from a single class period of fieldwork, or even a single course infused with fieldwork, but the appreciation of this systems idea can be planted and nurtured.

Start local

In choosing a field site, whether it is local or distant or for actual or virtual fieldwork, it should be interesting from an Earth systems science perspective. Fortunately, if you know how to look, every site is interesting from an Earth system science perspective. Over the grand course of Earth history, the story of any location is a fascinating one that involves myriad changes. The work of telling the story of any environment is a form of rich inquiry. While it would also be fascinating to find a place that hasn’t changed, no such place exists on the surface of Planet Earth!

While VFEs provide the opportunity to study distant or otherwise difficult to access locations, we suggest starting close to home or school, at a location that students are already familiar with or have access to. What is outside your classroom door has more immediate relevance to the lives of your students than anywhere else on Earth. Nearly every unit in an Earth or environmental science course, and most of the units in a biology course, play out in some meaningful way in the local environment, and the local environment can extend the boundaries of the classroom tremendously with little or no cost. Things are only understood in comparison to something else, so comparing sites to one another can deepen one’s understanding of both or even of all sites—but it is still best to start with the local.

Students can use real or virtual field sites to study how all the major topics in their Earth or environmental science curriculum are manifest in the “real world.” In an ideal situation, the classroom is immediately adjacent to a safe, accessible field site, and there is flexibility within the school schedule that allows for in-depth study of the site in ways that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical to repeatedly visit an actual field site with 30 students throughout the year or semester. Through virtual fieldwork, students can come to see how the rock types and flora and fauna outside their classroom tell part of the story of that place.

In order to create VFEs, authors must closely study their field sites with an eye toward doing fieldwork with students. VFEs are a stepping-stone to bringing students into the field, even if the field is “only” the schoolyard. VFEs can be used to prepare students for the field and/or to process the fieldwork after visiting the actual site. Ideally, students will participate in the creation and extension of VFEs, but we recognize that getting to this point may take years.