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There are field trips and then there are field trips

The Independent
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A week in sunny Tenerife sounds more enticing than a few days mapping the murky north Yorkshire Moors. Fortunately for some geology students at the University of Southampton, examining volcanoes in the Canary Islands is compulsory. While camaraderie and a change of scene are the pleasant by products of student excursions, these trips are also valuable teaching tools: they allow students to get their hands dirty, sometimes mingle with professionals, and raise students’ own international awareness. They might even sow the seed of a future research interest. Some subjects lend themselves to field trips – geologists for instance are actually obliged to complete time in the field to gain their degrees, and over the three or four years, Southampton geologists also visit north and south Wales and south east Spain.

“Field trips have the power to inspire a student,” says Johnny Rich, founder of independent guide push.co.uk. Although students rarely choose a course solely on the basis of trips, they are an added bonus and he believes as important at degree level as they are in primary school. “Imagine the experience of reading about a glacier or standing on one; seeing a historic one or digging one up – watching parliament on TV or being there,” he says.

A visit to an annual comic convention in New York meant Staffordshire University student Claire Smith got on a plane for the first time in her life. She’s in her third year of a degree in cartoon and comic arts and relished the opportunity to visit another country. All but one of students on the new degree took the trip – which they largely funded themselves – and were able to showcase their work at one of the world’s leading comic arts meets. “I was a bit shy at first with my portfolio,” says Smith. “But the trip was incredibly valuable – it opened the world up for me. And I do feel more comfortable speaking to professionals – now I feel I can relate to them.”

Getting students “out of their bedroom, off email and speaking face-to-face with people in the industry” is what these trips are about, says Adrian Tooth, organiser and course leader. His students are a proactive lot and are now lobbying for a group visit to a leading comic convention in San Diego this August. He’s also planning an “apprentice-style” exercise at London Comi Con in May – where groups of students will vie to sell their work. “We tried a similar thing at another convention – they got a real buzz at seeing the value of their work and getting feedback – so much better than sending emails no one seems to respond to or cold calling.”

And other courses run by Staffordshire University have a keen commercial focus, taking students to the likes of Barcelona, Tokyo or Paris – where Fiona Wilson, course award leader is preparing to take 23 surface pattern design students next month – the university acts as a mini agency in showcasing and selling students’ work. “It gives students great insight,” she says. “University provides great creative freedom and this helps them produce something someone wants to buy.”

Of course for many field trips the focus is more academic and less about business. Queen Mary University London’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences takes students to Borneo, Kenya and the Pyrenees, while aerospace engineering students complete a one-day flight course.

Archaeology students at the University of Southampton are funded – bar their travel – on a compulsory three-week field trip to an archaeological site of Portus, the maritime port of ancient Rome, which was captured on a BBC documentary “Rome’s Lost Empire” last year. Students are expected to don hard hats and take to the trenches and help excavate and document. “There’s nothing staged or scripted about the trip,” says archaeology lecturer Dr Dragana Mladenovic. “Students work alongside a real working team and experience all the excitement – and possible dangers - of the work.” As well as a solid programme of talks and trips, students learned to work together, mix with their international counterparts and explain their work to non-specialist students who can also attend the trip. “Universities today want to create global citizens,” says Dragana, “and this was a truly international experience.” Some of the students’ images, videos and documentation have gone towards creating a future Mooc – massive open online course - which will be available later this year.

Whether virtual courses might eventually replace physical trips as a cheaper more convenient means of experiential learning is a real concern. Many academics say online resources might enhance the actual field work – Dr Rex Taylor, lecturer at Southampton’s Ocean and Earth Science department for example is working on a virtual fieldwork system, driven partially by the need to make fieldwork more accessible but which will serve, he hopes, as a “primer” for students before the real thing. Dr Mladenovic is unequivocal. “As good as technology is, nothing can replace personal experience – being embedded in a different setting, taking learning out of the classroom – I don’t think technology can really compensate for that.”

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