Can we talk about Field Camp?


A few years ago, I was spending time with some geologists and they were telling me about Field Camp. That it’s a standard requirement of most Geoscience programs, but also that it’s highly problematic.

I just googled a bit, here’s what I learned. According to UW Milwaukee, “Field camp is a tradition in the education of a geologist. It is an intensive course that applies classroom and laboratory training to solving geological problems in the field.”

Gotcha. My colleagues are saying how problematic field camp is, but I don’t quite see it yet. Could you tell me more?

According to Tulane, “These courses, usually known as Field Camps, are generally offered during the summer term and range from 4-7 weeks. Most students complete this requirement the summer after their junior year.”

Ah, so students are spending one or two months in the summer at a field site learning field techniques. I can imagine this has a lot of traditional appeal. There must be a lot of nostalgia about old school geology and running field camps?

According to the University of Maryland, “Geologic field camp is a rite of passage in which most geology majors on planet Earth participate.”

I see. How are students expected to pay for this? Is it part of financial aid? No? There are scholarships, though? A few? That’s nice.

As far as I can tell — and let me know if I’m wrong here — it seems that students are expected to pay for this out of pocket above and beyond what they’re paying for school, and also this takes earning away from undergraduates who are counting on earning money in the summertime. Because Field Camp doesn’t pay until you’re in charge.

Does this create economic barriers for students wishing to study geology, right? It turns out this is quite the case. Not only do students have to pay for these experiences, but they’re also expected to have all kinds of clothing and gear that is needed for the work, or is expected that for students have, because as we all know that Proper Geologists Must Have Good Hiking Boots and such. Hmm. I’m thinking this might be a problem.

I wonder how many low-income students complete degrees in geology? I wonder if folks without much of an outdoorsy background, who mostly spent time in urban environments as kids, feel welcome? Do you think this might be associated with ethnicity at all?

It turns out that this is a real and well documented problem in the field.

Field Camps are accessible for disabled students, right? Oh, that’s not the case? Oh, my. You say that “you will need to be in excellent physical shape to get the most out of the experience, so train for endurance before the camp.” Whaaaat?

Let’s look at the subset of geology students who have managed to overcome all of these physical, economic, and cultural barreirs, and actually made it to Field Camp. Once they get there, it’s a good experience, right? Since the Earth sciences are so male and stereotypically have a macho thing going on, I imagine that the people in charge are doing all they can to tamp down dudebro culture and promote an inclusive and safe environment? That’s not true, you say? These Field Camps are well known to have hostile climates?

Are you saying that peer-reviewed research has shown clearly that sexual harassment and sexual assault commonly occur at Field Camps? And yet universities are still requiring students to attend these so they can graduate? Is that even legal? How can we in good conscience be sending students into environments that we know are likely to be harmful? You say that all field camps have policies against sexual harassment? Oh, I am now fully reassured.

You must realize that this is shaping who ends up in the field and all the people who never choose to enter or leave because of the hostile environments. This is going to take some hard work to fix these problems.

There are entire organizations that are focused on repairing these kinds of problems, which from what I hear, often manifest in their worst form in Field Camp. These orgs include AdvanceGEO and the International Association for Geoscience Diversity. I wonder if the folks who require and run field camps are being advised by these experts.

I wonder why so many undergraduate departments keep sending students off to these field camps. My guess is that they think hazing is a learning experience?

I think field training is important for a lot of us who do work that’s scaffolded on field-based methods. Which is why we need to make sure it’s done right. I think it would be supremely awesome if we could be able to provide field-based training for more people in my type of biology. But if our field camps looked like this, I sure as hell would not be asking or requiring this of any of my students.

4 thoughts on “Can we talk about Field Camp?

  1. As a geology faculty everything you have posted here is pretty much correct. The exclusion of many by cost alone is a huge problem (see this preprint for estimates and in NY state in particular the Excelsior Program does not cover those tuition costs, despite it being a requirement for geology majors, because it is a summer course. I’m sure there are similar financial aid caveats in other states as well.
    I can speak to what’s been happening in my department about field camp. We usually run a traditional field camp in the mold described above taking students to the western United States over the course of 4 weeks. This makes the field camp inaccessible to those with physical disabilities and because we are living in tents far away from major cities and in some cases without even cell coverage those with other disabilities may also exclude themselves. The last two years have been unusual due to COVID but we will be returning out west this summer.
    Starting the year prior to the pandemic members of the department were starting to seriously push to address the common issues of accessibility, safety, etc. that are well-known. The main obstacles has been resistance among some members of the faculty who have a particular vision of what geology is or should be. One of the few positive effects of the pandemic was to force us to shift to a remote version of field camp the first summer and then an in-person but locally based field camp this past summer. It demonstrated that we could make these kind of modes work and for many of the faculty the pandemic really brought forward the inequities of access to education. All this has meant that most of the resistance among faculty has dropped away with some former holdouts now fully onboard with a change.
    For the next few years we will be swapping back and forth between our traditional field camp and a more local, but still field-based, version. Both are equivalent in terms of course credit, licensure, degree requirements, etc. The idea being that traditional field camp is still desirable to some people but the local version is much more accessible both physically and financially. This is far from a total solution but it’s concrete steps toward a better field camp for all students.

    As a side note your tone in the post is pretty much exactly how my wife (non-STEM person) reacted when I described how field camp usually works.

  2. This is also a huge issue in archaeology (another field with a field school expectation in many programs).

    Heath-Stout, L., & Hannigan, E. (2020). Affording Archaeology: How Field School Costs Promote Exclusivity. Advances in Archaeological Practice, 8(2), 123-133. doi:10.1017/aap.2020.7

  3. Thanks for raising awareness about the exclusivity of field learning experiences. The NSF funded Undergraduate Field Experiences Research Network (UFERN, ( community is working hard to address these issues and we invite those interested in being part of the solution to join us!

    We have a paper coming out in BioScience in which we present a model and evidence that describes the impact of intended student outcomes, student context factors and program design factors on undergraduate field experience student outcomes. The model is designed to support the field science community to consider a range of ways students can engage with “the field.” A preprint is available here:

  4. From birth, I have had pain in my feet, ankles and now knees every time I walk. This is due to my fallen arches in my feet and incredibly weak ankles. I have not been able to treat my flat feet and weak ankles with inserts, and now fear that surgery is the only way to correct my feet. Due to this condition, I have gained weight as exercising (by moving my feet) is incredibly painful, and running or jogging exacerbates my problem by spreading my feet out even flatter. I was in a structural geology class, and the culminating project was to map the outcrops of a specific geologic feature in my region. I could not keep up with the rest of the class due to my feet, and so I walked as quickly as possible up the steep, rocky terrain. I was not the only one to lag behind – a few others were with me, as we had caught up to each other. We were looking for the rest of the class when the professor piped up from over a steep ridge that we were too far behind, and he screamed at us to hurry up. He wanted us to climb up the steep embankment. I could not, so I had to find a long way around. He was incredibly angry with me. I tried to explain what had kept me from following behind, but he didn’t want to hear it – I also explained my condition to him prior to the field trip, but he blew me off. He gave me three minutes to complete the outcrop description and strike/dip measurements, but would not allow me to ask him or my fellow students any questions or discuss the outcrop. He said I wasted enough time. He was punishing me because I was physically incapable of traversing rough terrain with bad feet. I was not able to finish my cross-section. Even now, I feel incredibly embarrassed by this.

    This experience made me not want to continue with geology. However, I finished up my bachelor’s, and became a teacher. I participated in an online field camp in 2020, which was like a dream to me – it was significantly cheaper because I didn’t have to pay to travel or stay elsewhere, and my father was able to front me the money. We used ArcGIS software which I have specialized in and have even taught to high school students, and Google Earth Pro. I am just amazed at the satellite imagery, and that one can map distinct rock units using it as well as measure strike/dip using the line tools. I have gone on several vacations of a geological bent with my family, and I have proven to myself that I can complete field work and that I love it, but it must be at the pace I can go. I can’t jog, run, or sprint on uneven ground and steep hills, and I should not be expected to do so. Just because someone’s disability isn’t immediately visible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I love field work, but I know my limits and I know I have to respect them.

    I’ve decided to apply for graduate school because I love geology and I want to become a researcher – it was also my father’s dream for me before he passed last year. I have already contacted several professors, and have completed the NSF GRFP application with one professor’s guidance. I’m hoping to work with her next fall, and I believe I have an excellent chance of doing so. I will complete field work under her guidance, but it will be at a pace I can hike without damaging my legs.

    My advice is this: persevere. Find someone who believes in you and supports you as my parents always have. I cannot explain to you in mere words the comfort and strength you can find in such people. Persevere – not only so you can prove your detractors wrong, but so you can find you are capable of contributing to society in a meaningful way while giving yourself purpose.

Leave a Reply