This conversation touches on a number of fundamental questions about what it means to be an expert geologist. As Frank and Alan point out, geologists view traditional geologic field work as vital to training, particularly for undergraduates (MacDonald et al., 2005 research paper in JGE). Geoscience educators have extended this to propose that field skills (and related skills, like spatial visualization) are hallmarks of expertise (e.g., Kastens et al., 2009 opinion paper in EOS). And, as Jeff points out, field work as a source of direct experience likely has significant benefits for moving people towards the abstract skills that have been identified as markers of expertise across a number of fields (e.g., Google "abstract skills, expertise" for empirical, theoretical and opinion-based works).

Interestingly, very little work on the nature, benefits, and drawbacks to fieldwork has been done - this is particularly true in the geosciences, which generally receive less attention from science education, learning science, or cognitive science researchers than biology, physics and chemistry. From the perspective of a postpositivist*, I very much want to see us collect data and challenge our assumptions about the value of many of of the instructional approaches we use, including fieldwork. What would geoscience training look like if we stepped back and asked, in whatever order:

1) What are the purposes of geoscience instruction for non-majors, majors, pre-service teachers, etc.? How can we align our curriculum, from courses to programs, to meet those purposes, and how do we know if we are successful?

2) What are the affective, cognitive, and behavioral benefits to experiences we offer our students? For example, what benefit does a mineralogy course, a standard offering, provide to geoscience undergraduates? What benefit would other offerings, say remote sensing, have? In essence, why do we do what we do, beyond the fact that this is the way we have always done it?

The two questions above can be applied to field work, and lead me to think about other, more basic questions: 

How much of geoscience today, as opposed to most of the 20th century, hinges on on-the-ground field observations? What role do on-the-ground field observations and interpretation play in preparing geoscientists for other types of data collection and interpretation? How do the social nature (ala Stokes et al.) and the situated/embodied aspects (ala Brodaric and Gahegan; and Semken/Riggs place-based work) of fieldwork contribute to geocognitive function and development? Basically, is fieldwork really vital for geoscience training, and under what circumstances, and for whom?

I have lots of other thoughts and my own opinions, but will stop here before this turns into a manuscript! Just in case anyone reading this doesn't know me: I personally think fieldwork has benefits. The problem is that my opinion is just an opinion, and geoscience education/geocognition need to challenge our most popular opinions in order to move forward. I would love to see our field go through a revolution, along the lines of the geosyncline-to-plate-tectonics paradigm shift, based on empirical evidence.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Take care

*You can all thank Scott Clark for getting me into the habit of using the nice "postpositivist" label to sum up my mantra: "collect data, then challenge your interpretations by collecting more data".

On Oct 26, 2010, at 2:22 AM, Jeff Dodick wrote:

I think that you might be missing an important point here about fieldwork. The expert scientists that use modelling, remote sensing etc. likely have spent many hours in the field. This may provide them with the concrete experience / visual images that are needed before they can work with the more abstract content of modelling, remote sensing. This is not the case with a typical novice who does not have this huge resource of experience / images with the concrete materials. This understanding is backed by basic learning theory (for example Piaget and Bruner) and is likely connected to work done in the psychology of visualization.
So the value of such hands on field work is invaluable for giving the novice that connection to geology that he / she can scaffold into more abstract learning opportunities.
Jeff Dodick
Jeff Dodick
Science Teaching Center
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Givat Ram, Jerusalem
Israel 91904
Tel: 972-2-658-6492
From: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">Frank Granshaw
To: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Monday, October 25, 2010 10:36 PM
Subject: Geoscience reliance on fieldwork

Hello everyone...

I am currently looking at two arguments regarding the inclusion of fieldwork in geoscience literacy courses.  

  1. Since field studies are one of the major ways by which geoscience knowledge is constructed it is important to expose novices to how fieldwork works so they have some sense of where this knowledge comes from.  Plus it gives them first-hand experience with at least some of the phenomena that they are looking at. 
  2. With the refinement of remote sensing technology and an increasing emphasis on modeling and lab analysis, we are seeing more and more geoscientists that spend little or no time in the field.  Consequently, it is an inefficient use of limited educational resources to engage novices in an activity that is becoming increasingly less important to the research community.

Are any of you are familiar with any statistics related to the time various types of geoscientists spend in the field vs. other activities such as modeling, lab analysis, administration?  Any reflections or information on the other issues associated with this question would also be appreciated.

Frank G.

Frank D. Granshaw
Earth Science Instructor
Portland Community College
Sylvania Campus
Portland, OR 

Julie Libarkin
Associate Professor, Director - Geocognition Research Lab
Michigan State University
206 Natural Science
East Lansing, MI 48824

Phone: 517-355-8369
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Geoscience Education

Affiliations: Department of Geological Sciences, Division of Science and Mathematics Education, Cognitive Science Program, Center for Research on College Science Teaching and Learning