Fieldwork 101


What follows are recommendations. These recommendations are intended to help prepare you for fieldwork, but they are just guidelines, not steadfast rules. Bringing the field to the classroom at any scale is better than not bringing the field to the classroom at all. The careful attention to detail described here will prove extremely helpful, but avoid being discouraged if your first trip to the field isn’t as productive as you had initially imagined. Scientists of all disciplines continually refine their methods and procedures, leading to more productive and “better” results over time. With time and more fieldwork, confidence will grow. Get into the field, be safe, and do your best to capture the experience in a way that allows you to best reproduce it for your students!

Before Visiting the Site

Understand the Geologic History of the Region

In order to make sense of a local site, it’s best to first understand the geologic history of the region before your visit. Did inland seas once flood the area? Have mountain-building events shaped the landscape and its rocks? The Teacher-Friendly Guides are an excellent source for discovering the history of a region, as well as that history’s effect on the rocks, fossils, and other features of the area. 

Questions to Keep in Mind

When visiting or examining any area, the ultimate question to answer is: Why does this place look the way it does? But to help answer such an overarching thought, it’s important to have certain other questions in mind. These questions will guide exploration, and they will help ensure that important information is recorded during your visit: 

  • What kind(s) of rock(s) are found in the area? How do you know?
  • In what environment did these rocks probably form?
  • What is the arrangement of the rocks?
  • Are fossils preserved in the rocks? If so what can they tell you about past environments?
  • What has happened to this area to make it look the way it does today? (That is, what has happened to the area since the rocks formed?) Why do you think so? (What is the evidence for your claim?) 

Figure 10.1: This flow chart shows various paths of inquiry that stem from the question: Why does this place look the way it does?

At the Site

Safety in the Field

At any field site, safety is the first priority. No photograph, measurement, or fossil is worth the risk of personal injury or death. To ensure safe and productive field work, keep the following thoughts in mind: 

  • Wearing the proper clothing is very important. Long pants are recommended, as are sturdy boots, which will help prevent twisted ankles as you scurry over uneven or loose surfaces.
  • While walking through a valley or next to any outcrop, always be on the lookout for rock falls. Remember, slopes with no vegetation tend to produce more falls.
  • If more than one individual is climbing an outcrop, do not climb single file. Rocks dislodged from one climber can quickly tumble down the outcrop and hit the next climber.
  • When using your rock hammer, protective eye wear should always be worn. If your hammer possesses a sharp pick opposite the flat surface, always use the flat surface when striking. And if you are working with others, notify all in the vicinity before striking any surface with your hammer.
  • Never use one hammer to strike another. Metal chips can be broken off and thrown at high speeds.
  • Finally, always carry a small, standard first-aid kit. 

Documentation & Specimen Collection

Photographs: Once at a field site—for both professional and amateur scientists alike—it is easy to immediately begin taking photographs without recording notes to accompany them. But the lack of proper documentation is perhaps the most common mistake in the field, especially with digital photography, where it is possible to take tens to hundreds of photographs at a site. Also, before you begin photographing it is advisable to first explore the entire location and develop a plan for how you will communicate the site to your students back in the classroom. This plan will guide your photography, and the recorded notes will ensure that every image makes sense long after you’ve visited the site. Proper documentation includes: 

  • Note the location and orientation of the photographs you take. Recording this information on a map is very helpful.
  • In each photograph, it is important to have a sense of scale. For smaller structures (like ripple marks or fossils) or close-ups of an outcrop or rock, it is important to show scale by using a common object, such as a penny, rock hammer, an unsharpened pencil, or (ideally) a clearly-marked ruler. For larger structures, a really great scale is a person, so feel free to step into the picture! The importance of a scale can not be overstated, as the proper identification of geologic features in photographs often depends on knowing the feature’s size. 

Drawings: Although photographs are key, simple sketches or drawings are also useful for documenting a field site. In fact, subtle changes in rock layers, for example, may not show in photographs, so to capture such features, drawing may be required. Drawing also forces you (or your students) to observe closely. It will be usefull to use either a Rite in the Rain notebook or a large, clear plastic bag to hold your notebook in case of rain. When drawing, keep in mind that you should document the same type of information that is documented in photographs (location, orientation, scale). 

Collecting specimens: Rocks and fossils often provide significant clues for interpreting past environments. Layers of basalt indicate past volcanism, for example, whereas shales bearing trilobite and other fossils indicate deposition in a shallow sea. Collecting specimens from a site provides a wonderful opportunity to take a piece of the field into the classroom, allowing you to engage students in hands-on learning. Collecting specimens also permits further study away from the field site. Both time and field conditions limit the study of samples at a site; collecting allows extended study of samples. You can and are encouraged to identify rock, mineral, and fossil types in the So, what do you need to know about collecting specimens? 

  • You first need to confirm that collecting specimens at the site you are  visiting is legal. Typically, collecting is not allowed in parks, so be sure to check.
  • Just as you made decisions about photography based on how you will communicate the site to students, collect specimens that will help tell the story of the site back in the classroom. If rock types change from area to area, either vertically or horizontally, then specimens of each type are ideal.
  • Before collecting a specimen, take a photograph of it in situ, both close-up as well as from a distance. Don’t forget to include an object for scale in the photograph!
  • Document the location from which the specimen is collected, preferably on a map of the area. Labeling the specimen with a number that corresponds to the same on your map is an effective technique.
  • Specimens should be broken directly from the outcrop so the exact source is known. Eroded rocks scattered about on the floor of the site may have originated from multiple locations.
  • The weathered surface of rocks often carries a different appearance than a “fresh” break. Ideally, collected specimens possess one weathered surface but are otherwise not weathered. Rocks broken directly from outcrops will ensure fresh surfaces.
  • As specimens are collected, place each in a separate resealable bag, noting on the bag with permanent marker each specimen’s location as indicated on your map. 

Back in the Classroom: Virtual Field Experiences (VFEs)

Perhaps the most critical step after your trip to a field site is to, once back in your lab or classroom, examine all of your photographs, illustrations, specimens, and notes associated with each. Sometimes even the most diligent geologist forgets to record notes that, in hind sight, are critical. It is therefore recommended that one makes sure that his or her notes are legible and complete. Recopy your notes. Such an activity will not only ensure legibility for the future, but it will help indicate any gaps in your note taking. If gaps exist, then it is easiest to fill them when your memory of the site is fresh.

Once your materials from the site visit are in order, it is time to develop an activity that will allow your students to experience the site much like you did—but in the classroom. One recommended activity is the Virtual Field Experience (VFE). Scientists in the field do not have a single possible way to operate, nor do they have a guide explaining what they see at every turn. In the field, one might pick up a rock and take a closer look, or pull out a magnifying glass and look at a cliff face. Exploration drives inquiry in the field; inquiry and exploration are the goal of VFEs.

The concept of VFEs can take on multiple forms. For example, kits containing maps, printed photographs, and specimens (with notes on the map indicating where the specimens were collected or photographs taken) can be produced. Or, your digital photographs can be embedded within a PowerPoint presentation, website, or Google Earth tour with notes indicated where the specimens were collected. But keep in mind that these electronic presentations may take on a very linear, directed feel. In that respect, be careful that your VFE does not turn into a Virtual Field Trip. Virtual Field Trips have become increasingly common at many levels of education. But these experiences are typically guided tours rather than opportunities for inquiry. An online search will yield many examples of these tours, as will a search of the Digital Library of Earth System Education (DLESE). Such resources clearly have value, but they are passive experiences for students. VFEs, in contrast, stress the importance of inquiry; learning for understanding involves students figuring things out.

In considering VFEs as a recurring practice, initial experiences are perhaps more guided than the later experiences; allow a gradual transfer of responsibility from teacher to student. But VFEs ideally offer the same opportunities for exploration as those provided at an actual field site, with occasional moments of discovery that lead to new questions about the site. By asking such questions and then seeking answers, students are doing science. And it is perfectly reasonable to virtually visit a site several times for further data collection, or to study different concepts at the same site. Scientists, of course, do this exactly.

Be sure to visit on a regular basis to find a constantly updated selection of VFEs created by scientists and educators around the country.