Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Unfamiliarity as a Learning Experience : a Personal View from The Canary Islands
Originator Alastair A. Vaan
Department School of Ocean & Earth Science, University of Southampton, UK
Tel. +44 (0)2380 596478

The author's experience of a week long residential field trip is used to illustrate benefits of placing a field course prior to a series of lectures. The course structure and use of the fieldwork to form the foundation of a lecture course lead to major benefits that are often ignored. Learning key aspects such as reasoning and critical evaluation of ideas - a "geological eye" is facilitated to a greater degree than might be achieved with a field course at the end of a module. In addition, field courses are often not integrated well enough into the accompanying lecture/practical series. An opportunity to use physical experience alongside more conventional techniques is lost.

The single third year module in Physical Volcanology comprised a week long course in the Canary Islands and was followed by a series of ten lectures supported by practical sessions making a total of 3 hours a week for a single semester. Course numbers were restricted and students were selected by academic ability. The course was designed to introduce a number of concepts relevant to the subject from deposit morphology to geohazard appraisal. The last two days of the field course were spent pursuing data for projects to be followed up during the term. Progress was discussed in an informal evening environment usually accompanied by a video and discussion of project directions for later in the week.

When lectures and practicals began, concepts introduced in the field were reinforced and material from the field was used in projects. This provided a framework for the lecturer that can be related to that physical experience, a much stronger medium than any slide or OHP transparency. Practicals revolved around standard introduction to specimens and maps/photos but with rocks already seen in outcrop and, therefore, the exercises become less abstract than is usual in the lab.

One day trips are excellent for this type of approach. Many are undertaken and although related to a specific course, are not usefully referenced by it. A local field trip can be used as a project source. An initial trip might be used to give a student group a feel for the area and a follow up day could be used as an opportunity for data collection for a project that would parallel a lecture course.

The course I experienced was the first of its type at Leicester University. The course director expects it to evolve and the structure is under constant review. Plans to include visiting lecturers to provide variation in insights and approach accompanied by changes in venue should keep the course (and its leaders) as fresh as possible. Leicester is also planning to introduce a scheme of staff rotation across its field trips preventing entrenchment and improving staff development, including broader awareness of the complete undergraduate course.


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