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Out in the field

Faced with cutbacks and other significant challenges, university field schools are forging ahead by using their difficulties as their strengths.

BY TIM JOHNSON | APR 10 2013

When Kendall Hills went to Trent University’s archeology field school in Belize for the very first time, she had no idea how tough it would be, out in the wilds of the Central American jungle. How hot and sweaty and dirty and rainy it would get. How difficult it would be to live in very close quarters with her fellow students and professors alike for five straight weeks. Ms. Hills also had no idea that it would change her life – that she would return to that very same dig five times as a staff member, and that the things she experienced there would alter her entire academic and future professional career.

“Digging my trowel into the earth for the first time was definitely exciting, and the first time I got to actually hold something that was more than a thousand years old – that was breathtaking for me,” says Ms. Hills, a senior staff member on Trent’s social archeology research program. It was there, in the middle of the rainforest, that the knowledge which she had accumulated during her years of classroom education all started to make sense. “You can read about stuff but until you get out there in the field, you don’t realize everything that’s involved. Getting your hands dirty – that’s what real archeology is all about.”

Although increasingly under pressure in a time of cutbacks, on-the-ground field schools persist in a number of disciplines. While not glamorous – the challenges are many – students and professors in geology, anthropology, archeology, biology and paleontology remain convinced that field schools, in addition to being completely engrossing, are an indispensable experience to properly learn these sciences.  And often it’s those very challenges that provide the most important lessons of all.

Gyles Iannone certainly feels that way. The director of Trent University’s undergraduate anthropology and archeology field school in Belize, Dr. Iannone has been supervising such camps for some 25 years. He attended his first field school in 1988, in the forests of British Columbia as a student at Simon Fraser University. He shares his former student’s enthusiasm for field work and her belief that true archaeology requires action.

“From the very first day of my first field camp, I realized that actually doing the work is ten times as exhilarating as reading about it. It’s all about being out there in a group of like minds and together experiencing that sense of adventure, of never knowing from one moment to the next what you’re going to find,” says Dr. Iannone. “You learn after a while that you’re working on a puzzle with 2,000 pieces, and it takes awhile to get the big picture.”

Geologist Tim Patterson, who has led a number of Carleton University’s field schools in Ireland, the Caribbean and other locations, agrees. While he believes that earth sciences students can learn a lot from sophisticated computer models and other new technology, he maintains that there’s truly no acceptable substitute for the real thing. On one trip, Dr. Patterson and his team of students joined forces with the Discovery Channel, sailing between islands in the Caribbean on tall ships, looking at a piece of the continental plate in Barbados, scuba diving in the Grenadines to see how various parts of reefs relate to one another, and flying in helicopters to observe the erupting volcano on Montserrat.

While it may sound like a cool tropical adventure, a trip like this provides invaluable academic experience, especially for those headed into environmental, mineral or petroleum-related jobs, says Dr. Patterson. Students visit a location they wouldn’t normally see and, more importantly, they get to witness a number of geological processes in action, which is very helpful for those going on to exploration careers in hard rock geology.

“We have an old saying: ‘The present is the key to the past.’ These processes will turn to stone, and if you can understand how that works, you can interpret the geology,” says Dr. Patterson. In his estimation, one day in the field is roughly equivalent to a week in the classroom.

That trip, to be sure, was a little more glamorous than most – they don’t normally include tall ships, film crews and choppers, and they often involve difficult conditions. Spending time in very remote locations, sleeping in tents and making do is living a true field experience. For Dave Melanson, a Carleton geology student who participated in three field schools as an undergrad, camping out was nothing new and he adapted well to the setting. But that wasn’t the case for everyone on these trips. “Sometimes people sign up for these camps and they’ve never gone camping before, and they don’t know what they’re getting into,” he observes.

Mr. Melanson says that getting used to living in the wilderness for days and weeks at a time – typical circumstances for a working geologist – was perhaps the most important part of the experience. It has already served him well, preparing him for his summer jobs working for the Canadian government and private mineral exploration companies in the Arctic, where he was dropped by helicopter, alone, and proceeded to map and sample huge areas of land. “Going in and simply knowing that I could live in a camp setting in the middle of nowhere, and enjoy it, that was the most important thing for me,” he says.

His capstone trip, during the fourth and final year of his undergraduate studies, was a two-week field camp in Chile. Highlights included hands-on exercises in two different iron mines and visits to earthquake fault lines. Claire Samson, the professor who supervised that trip and has led field camps in other international locations, says that one of the biggest challenges for some students is simply being so far from home. “Some of these students have never travelled outside Canada, so a big part of this is about expanding horizons,” she says.

Rather than trying to quell the homesickness by providing the comforts of home, Dr. Samson goes in the opposite direction, integrating as much of the local culture as possible, inviting students and academics from the destination country to join in and travel with her groups. Returning alumni tell her that this was, in fact, one of the most important parts of the experience. “The ability not to be disoriented when you’re not in your usual place, to be flexible and to challenge yourself to work with people who are very different from you, that’s a big element that these trips bring,” says Dr. Samson, who herself worked internationally with industry before joining Carleton. “And in the earth sciences, our field is very international. Many of our students will work for a while overseas. This is the trend, not the exception.”

Carleton’s earth sciences department enjoys a unique and fortunate position, having been endowed by the family of a former director of the Geological Survey of Canada, W.H. Collins, with a fund that provides $1,200 to each student participating in a geology field school. But the reality is that field schools are expensive, and more of the financial burden has been shifted from the institution to the students themselves. McMaster University’s geology department, for example, receives no such endowment.

“Field camps are the easiest thing to do away with. They require a lot of resources and they’re not as visible on the campus – they don’t have a presence like a lab facility. They’re not as prominent in administrators’ minds,” says McMaster earth sciences professor Eduard Reinhardt. He says that several students have expressed their regrets that they couldn’t take his course because of the cost of the field school. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but under the current budgetary restraints, we have to fight to keep these going.”

Departments that run field schools try to help students by providing less-expensive alternatives. For example, if one professor is running a school in Asia or Africa, another will take students to a location that provides somewhat similar attributes in Canada or the United States. Luxury is never promised and rarely delivered: on-the-ground transportation is often in basic school buses, accommodations are generally less than salubrious and even cramped. This presents a whole different issue, student safety, and how to ensure it.

Robert Longair, a biology professor at the University of Calgary, ran a field school in Ghana for five consecutive years, the last one in 2011. He notes that the biological diversity of that part of West Africa provided students with unmatched opportunities, from observing the multiplicity of butterflies on a tropical flood plain to monitoring exotic animals on the savannah to examining the size distribution of antlions, a predatory insect. Students sampled organisms and their habitats as they went along, bringing the material back to Calgary for further analysis.

But Dr. Longair notes that the university (and its insurance company) placed more and more strictures on his trip, from common-sense rules that required students to wear life jackets in canoes at all times to more frustrating decisions, like forcing him to switch a research site at the last minute because the original was too close to the border with a less-peaceful neighbour (Dr. Longair says the action was in fact very far from that particular border). The pressure and paperwork eventually led Dr. Longair to shut down his Ghana field school, and he is now facing similar issues as he plans a new one in the British Virgin Islands. “Even ten years ago, this wasn’t such a significant issue,” he says. “The number of things that we have to do, that are the result of the bureaucracy involved, are making these programs much more difficult than they used to be.”

While such complex pressures may be the biggest external threat to field schools’ continued existence, academics and students agree that the main source of contention and difficulty on the ground is much more universal: people living in close quarters for such a long time often have a hard time getting along.

“If you put a group of people in the same cabins for a couple of weeks, there’s always potential for sparks to fly,” says Mr. Melanson, the Carleton student. His professor Dr. Samson agrees. For a professor leading a trip, she says the challenge is dual: on the one hand, not being able to escape their students, and on the other, mediating conflicts among young adults. “It’s not like these are chaperoned teens – I can’t just send them to their rooms at eight,” she laughs.

Mirjana Roksandic, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Winnipeg, thinks she may have found the perfect solution: make interpersonal relations count toward a student’s grade. Dr. Roksandic leads a month-long field school to two different caves in Serbia, where students are able to study the Pleistocene era, learning first-hand about evolution and the dawn of mankind. “They know that their ability to work with others is part of their mark, and that tends to get rid of most of the complaints as they arise. They solve it themselves, on site.”

But ultimately, notes Trent’s Dr. Iannone, interpersonal relations, while the greatest of challenges, is also a field camp’s most redoubtable strength.

“The social side is very important. It’s the difference between playing singles tennis and playing on a football team,” he says. “You realize that to be successful you have to do it as a team, and to respect the fact that everyone on that team has different skills, a different background, a different view of the world.”

Dr. Iannone adds that the interpersonal connections made on these trips, between student and faculty and student to student, often serve a student well for years to come, providing graduate study opportunities and strong friendship bonds that become professional ties later on.

In the case of Kendall Hills, her first field school was a big part of why she has continued on in social archeology. After visiting Belize, she shifted her focus from Classic sites in the Mediterranean to Mayan archeology, completed her master’s under Dr. Iannone and is now seeking PhD opportunities. She remains close with many of the friends she made on the very first trip, some of whom have also continued in the field. The challenges, she concludes, are what allow you to prove yourself.

“You demonstrate how hard you can work, how you can deal with difficult situations, how you can bear up under rough circumstances, extreme heat and torrential downpours and long days. You prove your mettle out there.”

Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based reporter and travel writer who is away from home at least 250 days a year.

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  1. Daniel Laskarin / April 10, 2013 at 12:29

    A good article. Of course, there is also the phrase “adapting to abuse” which is what comes to my mind when I read about using “difficulties as strengths.” There are serious differences between the challenges of rigorous work and the environment of long-term ongoing cuts to university funding, but the rhetoric of growing stronger through difficulty masks this.