Field courses: a blessing and a curse


Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). During course, students are working towards ‘independent’ projects that they do in the field on the island of Öland. The field component is the real highlight. Although they get to do field exercises in and around Uppsala during the course, here they get a chance to spend several days collecting data on a single project and follow it through from start to finish. They start preparing for their projects before they head to the island; we basically seed them with potential projects in Uppsala but they decide what direction they will take and most importantly, how they will sample the sites.

The students also get a chance to see two ongoing monitoring/survey efforts based on Öland to see some real life examples. Ottenby (link in Swedish) is an amazing bird banding station that has been monitoring migrations since the 1940s. Housed at the station that we use as a base for the course (Station Linné), people are continuously processing insects from the Malaise trap project that seeks to understand the biodiversity of insects in Sweden. And of course be exposed to a fairly unique and beautiful ecosystem on the Alvar where they get a chance to see an incredible diversity of plants for such northern ecosystems. As you might guess, the trip is packed full with excursions and their research projects.

I really love this part of my job. Teaching in the field can be some of the most rewarding teaching I do. As I discovered when surveying ecology teachers, many also find it one of the more effective tools (see the results in an old post here). But….unfortunately there are some downsides.

The best time of year to do field courses is not surprisingly also the best time to do fieldwork. Hence a conflict can occur. The best teachers for a field course are likely those that do fieldwork but they might not want to dedicate the time away right when their own work is happening (at least that is my impression for why few want to teach in this course at my department). It is certainly not ideal for me to go away right before field season.

I have a young child so field courses also mean that my teaching obligation is a drain on my spouse because he’s a single parent while I’m away. Teaching a course exclusively on campus would mean that there is one less week when I leave my family and might open up other opportunities for travel to conferences or for collaborations, etc. I try to minimize the burden I put on my family by leaving, so adding a 6 day trip to the calendar every year means that I think more carefully about other trips. For example, I’m not traveling to the US this year to support my grad student and spend time hanging out in the system I’ve been developing for years. I know that my PhD is perfectly capable of doing the research without me, but it is a bit sad for me that I’m not there at all this year. To be fair, staying on this side of the Atlantic is not all due to field course travel but juggling that and deciding to do two other work related trips in June. However I know the equation that includes family, teaching and travel would balance a bit differently if my teaching didn’t include a field course.

The other side of the coin is that as teaching goes, helping students doing field projects is really fun. I get to spend a week in a beautiful part of the world and basically play around in nature. Sure, I help the students but I’m not the one collecting data. There is also less stress on the outcome from regular fieldwork because the learning process is really the focus rather than the data itself (there is no time for them to collect publishable data, for example). So I get to look at interesting habitats and species but I am there to offer help and advice when needed rather than to work hard at collecting data. In a straight comparison to teaching on campus there is no question that the field course teaching is a lot more fun for me. But it also happens every year that I underestimate how much doing the field trip will take out of me. I’m usually pretty exhausted afterwards. Even though it feels like I haven’t done much, it always takes me time to get back into the grove of figuring out what I need to do for my own work often at a time when I need to hit the ground running.

So for me teaching a field course is a blessing and a curse. What about you?

4 thoughts on “Field courses: a blessing and a curse

  1. Amy, thank you for sharing your experiences, from another Field biologist who teaches field biology.

    I teach at a small 4 year college in NY. When I teach Plant Ecology, I have to do it in the fall term and race to get all the course field work done before the first frost and when the leaves drop off the trees. When my children were small, my husband graciously joined the weekend field trips with the children so that they could come along (sometimes it included the family dog too). This did not disrupt the work since my children (and husband, also a scientist) were in fact more bold and curious about the field work than my students (even at very young ages). I always felt I had great “models” of scientific curiosity with me.

    I have also taught classes in Tropical Ecology with the lectures in the Fall and the field work during the winter break in Central America. Again, I would bring my family and my co-teachers, who wanted to, could bring theirs. (Regarding finances, we paid for their participation, but so did the students). Again, the children often “found” and “saw” more things than the students.

    For me the greater conflict with students and field work occurs with my research students. Currently, I work with Odonates, studying their foraging behavior and the neural basis of prey capture. Dragonflies forage actively during the middle of the day. For years, none of my research students have had a fall course schedule when they are free mid morning to mid afternoon. I tell them when they should be available but they find they can’t fit all the required courses they need to take around that schedule. I don’t hear until the term begins when they are “free” to do research. My last set could only work at NIGHT!!! So….I am frustrated that I have to “make up” a project that fits their schedules instead of the students making their schedule around my field research. We don’t have a formal application system for getting into faculty research labs but I will have make up my own.

    Our small college supports faculty research with the explicit goal not to bring in funds or train graduates students or publish tons of papers but to engage undergraduates in meaningful research. This part of the job, as a field researcher has been the hardest since students are in classrooms when meaningful field research can be done.

  2. I have made a point to not do a summer field course for my university, because it would take time away from my family (and from research), when I am away from home too much as it is. But then, two years ago, I was convinced to join a speciality course on ants at a wonderful location, and had so much fun with it, this is my third year doing it this summer. And now, my summer is too full with things away from home, and I can’t decide which important and fun thing was a mistake. (This time, I am bringing along my kid, who will be helping out with the course.)

  3. I ran the two-week long terrestrial ecology (latterly renamed Conservation & Biodiversity) field course at Silwood Park for 20 years – great fun but exhausting – the students got real hands-on experience of the outdoors and species identification (a rare thing at IC) and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately since I left, now almost two years ago, the course no longer runs which is a great shame. The Field Courses here at Harper Adams are all vey popular with staff so I have not been able to lever myself in yet ;-(

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