On bureaucratic obstacles to field experiences for students


If your university is like mine, then you hear a lot about everybody is working hard to make sure that students have exposure to high impact educational practices. We all want to make sure that while students are in college, that they have the chance to have meaningful experiences.

For students in a bunch of science fields, it’s pretty clear that one of the most transformative and impactful educational practices in our toolkit* is bringing students to places in nature for genuine field experiences. Yes, it’s possible to become an ecologist or a geologist without going into the field. But I think everybody who is getting professional preparation at the undergraduate level in the field sciences should have ample opportunity to go out into the field with their courses and their instructors, right?!

But it seems a lot of our universities aren’t on the same page. They might think it’s a good idea, but there are also so many bureaucratic obstacles to taking students into the field, that we’re doing it less than we should be. I know so many people who aren’t taking students on field trips simply because their institution is making it too hard to make this happen.

I think these barriers have gotten a lot taller once COVID hit and those barriers haven’t gone away. Even if campuses are now used to meeting in person again, I’m getting the vibe that a lot of us (including at my own university) have an incredibly new rigorous apparatus that involves safety and liability issues. What we are experiencing in my department — and I’ve talked with folks at a variety of other universities, who are subject to similar new issues — is downright absurd. It’s as if our universities actively want to prevent our students from having field experiences. I know that’s what anybody is thinking, but that’s sure what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

They way things used to be, when you went on a field trip, you got one or two waiver forms that students signed, you got some easy and straightforward approval, and then you could go on a field trip. It appears those days are over. Now, if you want students to go off campus on a field trip, the process requires several weeks of notice, specific vetting of the field trip by the campus apparatus that reviews travel and safety, and apparently there needs to be a separate piece of paperwork from each student that gets approved in advance by someone in some university office I think? All I know is that in my university, when professors want to take students on field trips, they need to spend many many hours of their time just getting permission to go on field trips because of all of the compliance paperwork, and this is supplemented by several hours of administrative coordinators on top of that.

This is genuinely kafkaesque.

several people standing around along a hillside in a desert
Scientists in the field. Photo by T McGlynn

Even the most dedicated professors at some point will throw up their hands and give up on going off campus to do science. Which is both sad and rage-inducing.

Here’s another story. I have a colleague at another university who went to the trouble of getting a grant from an external private foundation to support field experiences for this course that he is teaching. When he submitted the proposal for this funding, the university approved the project. But now that the grant came in — which pays for all of the field experiences for the course that he is teaching — his university isn’t letting him spend the money. Why not? Because, apparently, he’s not allowed to use grant money on food for students?!. But if you’re going on a several-day field trip into the desert, wouldn’t you be expected to feed your students? When he already had approval for this when the grant was submitted? I’m sure that whoever is not approving the use of these funds in this particular way has their reasons, and I’m sure that those reasons make sense in some kind of way, and I’m also sure that whoever is making these decisions is far more concerned about compliance than they are about educational quality, because otherwise, they’d find a way to make it work.

Anyhow, if you are a regular reader here, now you know that I’m currently faculty director of a field station. Which means that my job essentially involves supporting and facilitating field experiences for students when they go on field trips. I’ve been hearing from a variety of regulars that universities are marking it harder to bring students out to the field. Even though this kind of field experience is a critical equity and access issue, and an important piece of training scientists to respond to the climate crisis. There are some courses that used to be regulars at the field station every year, and now, it’s not so clear if that’s going to be the case. Because the combination of money, liability, travel, and safety concerns are just growing so much that getting students out into the field is a huge headache or in some cases an impossibility.

This post is going to be reaching some chairs and heads of departments, associate deans, deans, AVPs, provosts, and presidents. I just want you to know that university bureaucratic procedures — especially those that were developed during COVID — are now harming our work to implement best practices in STEM education. It might be worth figuring out what you can do to make it actually practical and possible for us to get students outdoors into nature again.

Because students in marine biology deserve to actually see the ocean as a part of their course experience.

*(There’s a ton of good research that demonstrates how field experiences are often key elements in the professional development of students to go on to careers in STEM, even if those students don’t go into field-based STEM fields. If this were an article, instead of a quickie blog post, I’d be linking you to all those papers.)

5 thoughts on “On bureaucratic obstacles to field experiences for students

  1. Another example: New safety requirements stipulate that instructors renting vans from the motor pool must pass a University safety course. The course costs $60 and the university declines to reimburse faculty for the cost of the course much less the time devoted to the course.

  2. I had to stop running field trips because my department chair dictated that I have a fellow faculty member along to guard against possible Title IX violations regardless of the fact that, in 22 years of teaching, I have never been accused of a Title IX violation. I suppose she was just being cautious but did not require such a condition of lab-based faculty who would regularly work alone with students in a research lab in the building. At my previous institution, I also had difficulty getting money from grants to pay for student food even when the trip was for that students’ senior thesis research. I am actually glad I no longer work there.

  3. When I was an undergraduate geology major in the early 1970s, there was a field trip for one class or the other every Saturday in the fall and again in the spring. Be at the department by 6 AM prepared to spend a day in the field. Bring enough food because we won’t be back until 5 or 6 PM. Dress appropriately: the department is not your parent. We crammed into the department suburban or into cars the few of us owned. I don’t recall any waivers having to be signed or any of this bureaucratic BS. It was assumed that everyone would use the brains that evolution gave them. The department operated under the rubric “The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks.” These field trips served me well for the rest of my career.

  4. Benefits of small colleges. I’ve never had to get any permission or approval for field outings. I take a whole class to a forest and cut them loose. It is not an unusual source of risk or anything – they very well may walk around the woods in their free time. Apparently our insurance has us covered for any thing that could happen during legitimate educational activities.

  5. Recent challenge that came up for us is apparently if there is any kind of accident in a university motor pool vehicle on a field trip, the individual department is responsible for repairing/replacing the vehicle. So we have to always have 20-30K budget buffer to cover that

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