Open discussion thread: field-based courses in the time of coronavirus

In the past, if we used the word “remote” when talking about field-based courses, we would have been referring to going to a far-off location. Now, during the pandemic, talking about teaching field-based courses remotely means teaching them with the instructor in one place and the students dispersed in many different places.

I know a few folks who are trying to figure out how to teach their summer field-based courses (e.g., field ecology courses) online. They definitely have some good ideas, such as taking advantage of Zooniverse, having students upload observations to iNaturalist, linking with Project Feederwatch or eBird, and using other publicly available data, such as data from NEON. There could even be some advantages to the students being spread out, including by asking students to compare and contrast what the class is finding in different regions or habitat types (as long as those activities are optional, to take into account different access to resources & different social/physical distancing realities).

It seemed like it could be helpful to have an open discussion thread where folks share what they’re thinking of doing, where they ask for suggestions for things they are trying to figure out, and where they share resources and ideas for how to teach this type of course as inclusively as possible. This will hopefully be similar to the open thread on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of providing a place where the ecology community can have a discussion, in this case about how to teach field-based courses during the pandemic.

What are you planning doing in your field-based courses? What are you worried about? What would you like to find out more about? What do you hope people teaching this sort of course will think about?

14 thoughts on “Open discussion thread: field-based courses in the time of coronavirus

  1. We made the decision this week to cancel our 2-week field course that was scheduled for May immediately after finals week. Our plan is to offer an in-person alternative once that becomes a possibility, either in the form of a winter-term course or additional sections next year. Students typically take this after their sophomore year, so many (but not all) of them have time to make it up later. We just didn’t feel we could come even remotely close to replicating what we currently accomplish in an online format, but I applaud others for trying.

  2. One thing that we will do is to first ask the students to describe the type of environments that they have access to in their vicinity (which is an interesting task by itself). You can then use this information to discuss possible parallel studies between students, that can be a basis for grouping.

    I am not so worried about the individual tasks but the logistics and the informal interactions. For instance, one issue that is also important to consider are the informal contacts both between students and between teachers/assistants, to solve minor problems. When you are at a field station, this will occur all the time, but now it is probably wise to schedule some time for these interactions. Another issue may the access to suitable equipment. The student may not have access to nets and other stuff at home. Some things are possible to solve through other means but not always. We are thinking of driving around to deliver such things to the students to make it possible for them to do more advanced stuff at home.

    Another issue is the availability of keys and other identification tools. There are plenty of resources available on the web that can be distributed but it is also possible to use the mobile cameras. Most student have access to mobile cameras that can be used to send photos to assistants for identifications.

  3. For ecology field section this semester, I made a virtual field trip to the streams for aquatic ecology. I will also have students working through data sheets and finding locations and determining the origin of the stream and the flow by using google maps well we watch the field trip. I also have the students completing Budburst in their backyard so they are collecting their own data sets as well.

  4. Our Tenerife Field Course for second year undergraduates has run since 2003, so we have a lot of old data that the students can use. I have given them the background to the field exercises, some images, and the data and asked them to write up the results. Less than ideal what else can we do? They have to complete this before they can progress into the final year.

  5. I’m teaching Avian Biology Lab this semester which was basically a series of field trips in which I help students learn to identify species and discuss behavior, ecology, and natural history observed in the field. I’ve been able to deliver binoculars to some fraction of students so that they can bird by themselves, but it’s pretty hard to identify things on one’s own as a beginner, or to know what behaviors they’re even witnessing, so this is a poor substitute. I’ve also assigned various bird documentaries to watch (especially for those without access to binoculars), and have had them play which provides an opportunity to quiz themselves on species id’s by sight and sound, and teaches them about species distributions in space and time (the goal of Fantasy Birding is to achieve the longest species list over the course of a semester, or year, by choosing a location each day and “getting” all of the species submitted to eBird checklists within 10 km of the selected location on that day). I also already had designed an Online Birding Lab that teaches students how to explore and query eBird, Breeding Bird Survey, and Christmas Bird Count data which I’m happy to share. All in all, an underwhelming experience relative to what we typically get to do in lab.

  6. Can anyone point in the direction of Zooniverse assignments. iNaturalist seems natural to me, as you can have students register and participate in private projects, but I am wondering if there any similar system in place in Zooniverse?

  7. Meghan will probably remember field courses at Cornell taught by Peter Marks and/or Dick Root, in which students did individual projects. A couple days just wandering around in the field, followed by a proposal to the instructor(s), some back and forth, then data collection, and an oral presentation. In the field plant ecology class at my university, usually it’s group projects, but plants are literally everywhere, whether you live downtown in a big city, in suburbia, or near natural areas, so we’re hoping to be able to guide students to interesting questions they can pose on their own, wherever they are, and with whatever resources are available. Oral presentations uploaded, viewed by all. More work for us for sure, but hopefully worth it. We should have another one of these in the autumn to see how things went!

    • I definitely remember that! I took Field Ecology with Peter Marks, and did my project on the types of prey caught in different types of spider webs, collecting data in Cascadilla Gorge!

      • Hello Meghan,

        Thank you for your post. I teach general ecology for junior/senior at a small liberal art undergraduate institution. Would you please share with me your online syllabus for teaching ecology on-line for the fall semester?
        Thank you

      • I teach Intro Bio, so unfortunately don’t have a plan for an upper level general ecology course! Hopefully another reader will!

  8. This is not exactly the same, but I taught Forest Ecology for non-majors without a field component (35 students, downtown Boston, no vans) a few years ago. For both the mid-semester and final projects my students “adopted” forest sites and presented research on the natural community, forest composition and structure, topography and substrate, disturbance histories, conservation status, and charismatic megafauna of their forest. The students were not expected to visit their sites in person; I facilitated some video-chats with land managers, students found images and videos of their forests on social media, and read peer-reviewed papers on local research. The final project balanced freedom in site selection and presentation style (the mid-semester version was much more directed) with concrete expectations and a clear connection back to the core concepts of the class. Students drew connections between their forests and their peers’ forests, between theoretical knowledge and practical application, between figures from the papers in their Annotated Bibliographies and Instagram pictures snapped at their forest site — it was really a lot of fun. This assignment could be re-worked so that students either adopt local forest sites close to home, or remote-adopt sites that they can not visit. Happy to share my old course notes if anyone is interested…

  9. You’ve raised an important issue, Meghan. I have been engaged of late with local and state officials, primarily for development and implementation of safeguards for homeless persons during the pandemic. I believe some of our findings could be of use concerning potential field school programs.

    Social distancing does provide some measure of protection from COVID19. The primary benefit concerns the potential of aerosols containing viral particles from making direct contact with a person’s eyes, nose or mouth. However, as is true of most respiratory viruses, aerosols seem to be a relatively minor mode of transmission of COVID19. In outdoor settings, the chances of being infected by contaminated aerosols is close to nil, due to the dilution effect vapors and gasses in air. That does not mean social distancing is not of importance out of doors, but people should focus upon more likely modes of disease transmission in field settings.

    Likely more than 90% of community-based transmission of COVID19 occurs via hand to face contact. A person touches an infected person or contaminated surface, and then touches their face and contracts the virus. I have implemented a rule for myself that I believe is very helpful: If you use your hands, then wash your hands. I say as much, because we use our hands for so many things that it is not possible for us to identify every source of possible transmission. If I use my laptop, then I wash my hands, even though I am the only person using my laptop. If I open a door, then I wash my hands, because obviously many people have touched the door knob.

    In a field school setting, I would pay very close attention to hand related activities involving clipboards, pencils, paper, spotting scopes, measuring tapes, water bottles, backpacks and whatnot. I would take every step possible to ensure that these materials are never handled by more than one person. Obviously, everyone should have ample hand sanitizer. Even if it is the case that students are operating individually from where they reside, I would encourage instructors to hammer home these guidelines, because you have no way of knowing who might accompany the student in the field, or who they might encounter while there.

    I have been as cautious as possible, yet, I still encounter potential sources of COVID19. During a recent “no contact” delivery of food to my home, I answered the knock on the door. I assumed the delivery person was trained in no contact delivery protocols. When I opened the door, the person heaved the food into my arms, forced her way into my home, and then started yammering without a face mask at a distance of about 15 centimeters from my face…

    It is not possible to be too careful.

  10. Pingback: What’s your biggest worry about possibly having to teach all your courses online in the fall? | Dynamic Ecology

  11. The Pymatuning Lab of Ecology in NW Pennsylvania usually offers 12 or 13 field courses a summer. This summer 9 of those are still going to run, but in a remote learning format. We were instructed not to ask students to access certain types of outdoor environments for activities, which makes good sense because depending on each student’s unique situation, doing so may put them at risk. To help our instructors prepare to teach field courses in this uncharted territory I’ve been putting together a document that I’m happy to share with anyone who’s interested where I’ve started compiling existing resources. Early discussions through the list serv of the Organization for Biological Field Stations and ESA’s water cooler chat on this topic has helped me pull this together. You are right there are a lot of people grappling with this right now, so I’m happy to share what we’ve learned and are now 2 weeks into applying at the Pymatuning Lab.

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