Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Technology, Accuracy and Scientific Thought in Field Camp: An Ethnographic Study

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Technology, Accuracy and Scientific Thought in Field Camp: An Ethnographic Study

Article excerpt


An ethnographic study was conducted on an undergraduate field course to observe and document lived experiences of students. This paper evaluates one of several emergent themes: that of technology dependence, and how it informs students' understanding of scientific reality. In the field, students tried to arm themselves with as high a degree of precision as possible. They assumed that technology was equated with precision, and in turn, precision with scientific reality; i.e., accuracy. Students rejected the notion that in some situations, low levels of precision may be "good enough" to be accurate. This theme of technology dependence suggests five broad implications. First, students are rarely taught, and rarely understand, the difference between precision and accuracy. Second, students should be taught to appraise a situation to apply an appropriate level of precision, rather than to assume that more is better. Third, students should be taught to value the process of doing things "by hand," such as locating oneself on a topographic map. Fourth, students should have ample opportunity to explore the complexities of physical and scientific reality. Finally, field camp is a late opportunity for shaping the professional growth of future geoscientists, and thus deserves a prominent place in geoscience curricula.


Geologists generally recognize field camp as the time when undergraduates make (or begin to make) the key transition from student to scientist. Field camp is a capstone, integrating separate courses such as petrology, stratigraphy and structural geology into a single experience. This integrative experience is part naturalistic description of the physical world, and part scientific interpretation of its long-term history. Field camp is a unique opportunity to study the real world, while reinforcing classroom experience and building student confidence and interest (Fuller, et al., 2006; Maskall and Stokes, 2008). Despite these benefits, the number of field camp courses being offered nationally has been steadily declining for some years (Costello, 2007). Field camps are expensive, and generally do not recover their costs through tuition (C. Andronicos and W. Cornell, 2003, personal communication). In times of shrinking budgets, many programs are forced to fight for their field camps, or to simply eliminate and outsource them. It is now, more than ever, crucial for us as geologists and as educators to justify the continued effort and expenses associated with field education. The purpose of this ethnographic study is to support field education by a narrating and interpreting the mental lives and constructed realities of a sample of undergraduate field camp students.

Many workers have described and analyzed field education. Whitmeyer, Mogk and PyIe (2009) provide an overview of the history of field education, and its subsequent evolution, as a prologue to a volume of field education contributions titled, "Field geology education: Historical perspectives and modern approaches." This Geological Special Papers volume (No. 461) contains accounts of established field programs, descriptions of technological adaptations and advances, original research in field education, contributions on field experiences for teachers, and treatments of field education pedagogy and assessment. I refer readers directly to this volume, rather than summarize it further here.

Ernst (2006) writes on the importance of field mapping from the perspective of a senior geoscientist. He considers field relationships to be the "ground truth for all earth science investigations" (p. 14). Nyman, et al. (2008) discuss the importance of field-based learning and teaching as part of the broader geoscience training of K-12 science teachers. They argue that geoscience departments directly contribute to and merge with their universities' missions by training preservice teachers in earth sciences. These workers then argue that for the general public, a strong background in the earth sciences (and by definition, this includes field-based learning) is crucial to coping with public welfare issues. …

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