Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Role of Fieldwork in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Abstract: This section is aimed in particular at university disability advisers and other non-field scientists so they can understand why most staff in these disciplines see fieldwork as central to their curricula. It reviews the role of fieldwork in these three (and related disciplines) and the kinds of learning activities in which students will be engaged. Relevant sections from QAA benchmarking statements for these disciplines are presented.

Most of the staff teaching geography, earth and environmental sciences (and indeed colleagues in many other disciplines from architecture to zoology) see field study not only as something worth experiencing but also as something central to the curriculum, without which a qualification in the discipline has little or no value (Box 7).

Fieldwork plays a pivotal role in the Quality Assurance Agency's (QAA) Subject Benchmarking Statements for Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies, and for Geography (see section 'Why is Fieldwork so Central to these Disciplines?'). Whilst this view of fieldwork's centrality may be contested by some staff in geography and environmental studies, their view is very much a minority position. So the apparent 'requirement' poses evident challenges to attempts to ensure that the learning experiences that disabled students have are comparable to those of the other students. In particular, issues of mobility and sight seem to pose difficulties or even insuperable problems for both staff and students. Consider this account by Peter White, on his first journeys outside the gates of his special school for the blind (Worcester College). (Peter White is now a well known and respected radio presenter/editor, in particular for the BBC series on issues concerning 'disability', "Does He Take Sugar?")

"In those early weeks my adventures included getting lost on almost every housing estate around the edges of Worcester, falling into several muddy ditches in the surrounding lanes… finding myself in a farmer's hen coop…. In the end I shattered this happy state of bucolic mayhem… by getting run over by a rather large lorry…. One minute I thought I was crossing the entrance to Dog Rose Lane in what was a permanent state of geographic uncertainty…. In the end it turned out that all I had sustained was a bump on the head…. Nevertheless it did not take long for the shock waves of my incompetence to register with the school of what might have happened."
White (2000, pp.98-99)

Who would wish such a student to be placed in the position of being required to undertake an independent survey of pedestrian safety on a main road near the College? Or more positively, how could the organiser of a field trip ensure that a blind student could achieve the required learning for their academic programme through undertaking this study or some equivalent activity?

In the following pages we mainly address colleagues outside the three core disciplines to explain firstly what sort of activities are undertaken on fieldcourses, and secondly why they have been seen as central to our activities for many years. Indeed, this will implicitly highlight why some people wonder whether students such as Peter White should attempt to study these disciplines at all.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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