Field-Based Learning in the COVID-19 Era
Field-based learning is an integral part of the SEAS experience. And one of the biggest concerns for SEAS faculty was how to safely hold in-person field labs for incoming environmental master’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sheila Schueller, a lecturer and academic program specialist, teaches one of the largest field courses in SEAS each fall: EAS 509: Ecology Concepts and Applications. EAS 509 is the core ecology course for first-year master’s students, and includes both lectures and hands-on field labs. With nearly 170 individuals enrolled in this semester’s hybrid class, Schueller was tasked with reconfiguring the labs to meet social distancing and other COVID safety requirements for the 115 in-person students, while providing a comparable field experience for the nearly 55 remote students.
For in-person labs, Schueller designed it so that smaller sections of students—15 or fewer—are in the field at any given time, and the same lab is repeated several times over a two-week period, giving all sections the opportunity to complete it. Masks are worn in the field at all times, students are required to stay six feet apart, and lab equipment is not shared and is regularly sanitized.
In pre-pandemic years, students would travel together in vans to multiple field sites, including some that were 45 minutes from Ann Arbor. This year, students were limited to completing their labs at three field sites that are within walking distance of the Dana Building: two locations in U-M’s Nichols Arboretum and one location in Island Park, a river park owned by the City of Ann Arbor. Though there were fewer field sites, Schueller said the experiences were still enriching, given that students had a variety of habitats to study.
Schueller noted that an unexpected benefit of social distancing was that students became much more focused on their individual work. “We lost some of the socialization with not being able to share a tray of macroinvertebrates, but it actually led to some very concentrated independent work,” Schueller said. “It made me happy to see the students bent over and really immersed in what they were studying.”
Providing a lab experience for remote students—who are spread out across the country and in China and Brazil—was more challenging, Schueller admitted, and she had to be creative. Schueller and SEAS faculty Johannes Foufopoulos, Mike Kost, and Catherine Riseng, who also teach field-based labs, were awarded a joint grant from U-M’s Center for Academic Innovation, which allowed them to collaborate on creating short videos of themselves in the field that could be watched by remote students before they completed a guided lab activity in their own areas. The videos also supported pre-lab preparation for in-person students.
“While students can look on YouTube for videos of what we are studying, I wanted the videos to be more personal and to really fit what I wanted students to gain from the course,” Schueller explained. “We created videos to illustrate tree identification skills, or the ways we could sample for insects with and without equipment, or how to recognize stream characteristics—all with me in conversation with a SEAS graduate student or an expert in the field, so that they were accessible and tailored to the students.”
Schueller said she has heard from several students who expressed appreciation for her efforts, including Ted Vuchinich, who wrote, “I was really anxious going into your class because I have minimal knowledge of ecology. But everything so far has been set up in perfectly digestible chunks and the modules make me wish I could have physically gone to your classes.”
Another student, Megan DiCocco, shared her enthusiasm about visiting a bog for the first time. “I had so much fun seeing an application of the material we learned in class about bogs vs. fens. I spent about a half hour getting up close and personal, checking out the plants (lots of moss and pitcher plants) and insects (dragonflies!). Thank you for already helping me to see natural systems in a more exciting way!”
In addition to the labs, another major component of EAS 509 is the students’ independent field projects, where they choose their topic, develop an idea with Schueller’s input, and present their findings to the class. The large mix of in-person and remote students who are geographically distanced has resulted in more projects this year—62—since some students are working individually and others are working in groups of six or fewer students.
"What’s fun about it," Schueller said, “is that we ended up combining remote and in-person students, so students who are in Virginia are comparing the same thing with students who are in Michigan. They’re collecting data in the same way, and they’ll do a joint presentation. Another student in Brazil and a student in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are both looking at the impact of coastal development on vegetation. And several students in Shanghai found each other and are now doing their independent project together. I’ve also been advising students in Florida and California, which have very different ecosystem types than we have here in Michigan, so that's been fun."
Given all the limitations and challenges of a COVID year, Schueller said she was pleasantly surprised with how the students experienced field labs this semester. She and others in SEAS and EEB spent all of last summer developing and implementing COVID-19 safety protocols for field experiences for the upcoming academic year, and Schueller said it has paid off. "This would not have been possible in a course this size without a creative and devoted team of GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors), each leading more than one of the 15 total lab sections, because social and physical distancing means a lot more effort and individual attention are needed to keep students connected, engaged, and safe,” she said. “It’s an achievement that many months of planning have come to fruition."