The Environmental Sciences Program at Northern Arizona University developed an interdisciplinary field course combining natural sciences (geology, biology, and chemistry), policy and land management centered on a place-based set or problems. The course consists of a campus-based semester of study of scientific, management, and political issues surrounding the lower San Juan River basin of southeastern Utah. Students then spend eight days on the river conducting scientific studies and discussing their management and policy implications.
The desired learning outcome of the course is for students to be able to integrate complex environmental field data, and the course structure and evaluation criteria emphasize this. Students work in large and small groups on problems that combine geomorphology, geochemistry, and ecology, such as stream terraces, soils, and the plant communities they support, soil development and chemistry under native and non-native vegetation, and biological soil crusts and soil development in arid lands. Discussions on the management and political implications of the students' findings give a "real-world" relevance to their work. Conducting a field class on a remote river presents a number of difficulties and opportunities. River logistics are handled by a commercial outfitter so professors can concentrate on academic issues.
Field education gives students the opportunity to develop their abilities both to think in four dimensions (space plus time) and to go through the process of iterative decision-making. The development of these skills is critical for students who intend to work in the areas of geology and environmental sciences. At Northern Arizona University (NAU), the Environmental Sciences program developed its current field-oriented curriculum about a decade ago, relying on 3-hour labs during the week and weekend-long field trips. Students learned techniques and how to think in four dimensions, but, due to the typically short duration of their field projects, did not experience the full iterative process by which studies are conceived, designed, and carried out. We decided to develop a longer field course that allows students to delve deeper into questions, and more fully understand the connections between different natural science disciplines (e.g. biology, chemistry, geology) as well as between trie natural and social sciences (e.g. communications, education, political science). Our learning goal was for the students to develop a high level of sophistication in their integration of data from different subject areas and to understand the connection between policy and the natural system they study.
Conceptual Basis For The Course - Two of the three authors participated in the Science and Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) 2002 Summer Institute. The SENCER model is "to teach 'through' complex, capacious, unresolved public issues 'to' the basic science required to comprehend them" (Flower, 2000; SENCER, 2005). Several of the SENCER courses served as models for the development of an extended field course. The "Chemistry and the Environment" (Schacter, 2002) and the "Energy and the Environment" (Jordan, 2002) SENCER models are exemplary courses that emphasize problem-oriented approaches to a variety of environmental problems. Schacter (2002) uses a group organizational approach to address community-based environmental issues through student-driven scientific research projects. Jordan (2002) uses "contemporary environmental issues as a framework for introducing foundational principles..." and explores how these issues are related to public policy through class discussions, in-class problem solving, and group research projects.
These approaches are readily adaptable to an extended field course because they are problem-oriented, inquiry-based, and integrate local environmental issues. By choosing local issues and research sites, students have the opportunity to enjoy both problem-based learning (solving real-world problems) and inquiry-based learning (designing and conducting their own investigations), both methods considered to be effective at enhancing scientific literacy (Siebert and Mclntosh, 2001). …