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How to teach an experiential field course online

Case study developed by Laci Gerhart-Barley, Christopher Jadallah, Sarah Angulo, and Greg Ira.

This post was developed by Laci Gerhart-Barley, Christopher Jadallah, Sarah Angulo, and Greg Ira, who have recently published a paper about their work adapting an experiential field course (with significant citizen science components) to an online setting during Covid-19. You can access the paper, published in Ecology and Evolution, here.

The COVID pandemic and subsequent shift to fully online/remote instruction has resulted in a wide variety of instructional challenges and opportunities in higher education. Particularly impacted are instructional strategies relying on experiential learning, such as courses relying on field- or inquiry-based approaches. The California Naturalist (CalNat) program offers many such courses, focused on building naturalist skills in the field and completing service-learning capstone projects centered around environmental stewardship and volunteerism. Under traditional in-person instruction, students complete field observation activities together during class. The UC Davis CalNat course, Wild Davis, was scheduled to run in the spring of 2020 and was converted to emergency remote instruction when Yolo County mandated a shelter in place order the week prior to the start of the quarter in March, 2020. In order to retain the experiential component of the course, the instructional team relied upon publicly available participatory science projects. 

Due to the remote nature of the course and the limitations of shelter-in-place directives at the time, participatory projects used in the course needed to be 1) publicly available online, 3) completable with minimal training or supervision, 4) completable in a small-scale urban setting (such as a backyard). Such projects included iNaturalist, the GLOBE Observer series, and the Great Sunflower Project. Students independently gathered and submitted data to these portals and reported their findings to the class cohort via synchronous Zoom meetings. The published case study highlights how these participatory science projects integrated into other course components, as well as considerations for instructional teams making similar transitions, and student perspectives on the course (from course evaluations). Interestingly, overall evaluations of the course were similar between traditional in-person and emergency remote instruction. Additionally, students in the remote instruction course ranked field trips and interacting with other students as more valuable components of the course than did traditional in-person students.

While future iterations of CalNat courses across the state may revert back to fully in-person instruction, courses occurring this spring (such as Wild Davis) are still primarily remote or hybrid. The anticipated structure for Wild Davis for Spring 2021 relies exclusively on participatory science projects for each week’s activity, coupled with visiting speakers discussing with students the importance of such projects for public engagement and scientific research. Sampling kits will be distributed to students to allow more hands-on sampling and data gathering beyond mobile phone photography. To facilitate integration of such participatory science projects within other CalNat courses, the instructional team is also developing a webpage that catalogs projects other instructors have integrated into their courses, as well as those that closely align with CalNat course content and California environmental issues. 

In the years prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CalNat program was considering the development of an online curriculum with materials and resources to support instructors. Since the online Wild Davis course ran, some CalNat courses that were previously offered exclusively in person are now considering hybrid instruction models. This new course model may eventually offer access to certification for a greater number of Californians than strictly in-person models. The entirely remote Wild Davis CalNat course and its results served as one of the first online iterations for the statewide program. The findings helped expedite the development of a new distance teaching and learning curriculum that will undoubtedly serve the program in the future. 

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