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Ways to make fieldwork more inclusive and accessible: insights from the CULTIVATE team

By Dr Lynda Yorke, Bangor University, Dr Liz Hurrell, University of York and Dr Simon M. Hutchinson, University of Salford

As geographers and environmental scientists fieldwork has always been an integral part of our learning, our training, and our teaching. However, in recent years, and catalysed by the global pandemic there has been a swing towards addressing inclusivity and accessibility in the geosciences, and the recognition that both are essential components when it comes to the development and design of field-based activities for teaching and learning.

That is not to say that as a discipline this hasn’t been on the radar for a very long time, it has been, but there has been a seismic shift in attitudes and a proliferation of approaches that can and have been deployed to address equality, diversity, and inclusion in the field.

The CULTIVATE project, led by Dr Lynda Yorke at Bangor University and funded by NERC, was about enabling educators to better plan and deliver fieldwork teaching that is inclusive and accessible for all students by taking a grassroots approach.  As a project team, we have therefore tried to explore some key inclusion and accessibility issues through using storytelling to collect personal fieldwork experiences and exploring digital approaches used by colleagues for field teaching through our hackathon and workshop events. In this way CULTIVATE was very much about growing an inclusive teaching environment that was driven by the community for the community.

We certainly do not proclaim to have all the answers, but in our recently published ‘10 ways to…’ booklet we’ve pulled together some key pointers to help make field work more inclusive and accessible. Here we summarise some of those points to help guide others when planning fieldtrips for their colleagues and students.

Don’t make assumptions

Personal experiences and expectations shape our approaches to teaching and learning. However, students haven’t all completed a Duke of Edinburgh Award, or necessarily have field experience. The countryside or urban environment can be as alien to many as it is inaccessible to others. Planning field-based activities should involve a consideration of the wide range of factors that surround and affect field-based activities for both participants (students), trip leaders (academics) and demonstrators (PhD researchers, GTAs) is a must.

To quote an old saying ‘it’s not rocket science’

That’s not to sound trite, but when it comes to designing an inclusive and accessible field experience it really isn’t complicated. Much of what came out in the many discussions we’ve had throughout the duration of the project was that it isn’t difficult to get the basic things right. At the very least, talking to our students and colleagues about their conditions is a pre-requisite to good field practice. More often than not it is the simplest solutions that are required, such as outlining the timings of trips in advance, providing kit lists (and alternatives) of what is needed, detailing the environments or situations students will encounter, etc.  

It is more than just toilet stops 

Designing an inclusive and accessible field trip does entail the access to or provision of toilets, but in reality, that is not the end goal but the minimum starting point. Whether it’s a day-long trip or a week-long residential visit, we invariably ask students to complete a medical form, however, these don’t pick up hidden disabilities, nor religious sensibilities, or simply student worries! Barriers are everywhere. We need to view field-based activities from multiple angles, but always bearing in mind the learning outcomes (usually linked to Subject Benchmark Statements). Essentially, all the principles of good teaching that we’d apply if we were writing a new lecture-based module, we seem to forget when it comes to designing field-based modules.

Addressing inclusion and access issues in field trip design can range from considering unfamiliarity with local climates/landscapes and hostilities to non-locals to digital notebooks and sign-language interpreters. Recently some high-profile universities have pulled their international trips to countries that outlaw homosexuality, and rightly so. There can be strong rationales for why we want to use a particular field location, but where human rights are violated or people persecuted, there is no argument for that as the field destination of choice. We need to consider ways of making a destination accessible and inclusive through digital/virtual forms, as well as reasonable adjustments to formats, locations, and access to facilities.

Staff and students share the same concerns

One thing that came out strongly in discussions was the need to address staff issues alongside student concerns associated with field activities. The new RGS-IBG Fieldwork Principles go a long way to addressing the issues, providing Higher Education Institutions adopt them. Things like child-care/caring responsibilities, working 24/7, mental health and physical impediments, being away from home, etc. affect staff and students, yet often these issues are not considered by departments in relation to staffing. Additionally, not considering staff and student workloads when timetabling field trips; how often do we return from a week-long trip to be faced with a full inbox and a new week full of lectures? There is often no recovery/downtime scheduled for staff or students during and following an intensive period of fieldwork, but both would welcome it.

No room for dinosaurs

There is still a lack of willingness amongst some academics when it comes to adopting more inclusive field-based teaching approaches. Too often we are repeating the experiences we were exposed to as undergraduates because it’s deemed a right of passage. Instead, we need to question why we use a particular field location? What are the learning outcomes? What skills do we want our students to come away with? There will be resistance to change, but why run a field-based activity if everyone is miserable because they walked for X number of miles, and didn’t have time for a lunch break. Field-based activities are not endurance marathons, they’re spaces for learning and supporting curricula knowledge.

Get colleagues talking

Despite the mention of some unwillingness to adapt, to be fair a lot can simply be related to colleagues not having considered what the barriers might be – as true in academia as it is in life! As part of the CULTIVATE project, we ran a workshop where we presented participants with images of field locations, lab setups, hotels, dining rooms, dormitories, evening working, wet weather, field clothing, rainbow flag, places of worship, etc., and simply asked them to identify issues and come up with solutions. We gave no other instructions or information relating to the images. What came back was varied take-aways from the imagery in terms of issues identified, but also in the approaches to address those issues that were presented. Facilitating small-group discussions, with minimal input at the outset, enabled multiple perspectives to be presented. Improving accessibility and inclusion in field-based teaching is something we’re all working towards; enabling conversations between colleagues and students can help us to achieve better outcomes.

We believe that by coming together as a community we can share best practice, develop approaches, and gain a better appreciation of the issues at hand. We’re working hard to break down the silos!

About the authors: Dr Lynda Yorke is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, School of Natural Sciences, Bangor University. Dr Liz Hurrell is a Lecturer in Physical Geography, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York. Dr Simon Hutchinson is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, School of Science, Engineering and Environment, University of Salford. Lynda was the Principal Investigator, Liz and Simon were co-Investigators on the NERC-funded CULTIVATE project. Their research interests lie in digital teaching resources, fieldwork, and inclusive and accessible teaching and learning approaches.

The work discussed in this blog was supported by a Natural Environment Research Council grant for the CULTIVATE project, number NE/W007614/1:CULTIVATE. Ethical approval for the research was given by Bangor University’s Ethics Committee (COESE2020LY/CULTIVATE/01A).

Suggested Further Reading

Lawrence, A. and Dowey, N., (2022). Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. Area, 54(1), pp.52-59.

Yorke, L., Hutchinson, S.M., Hurrell, L., (2022). 10 ways to make field work more inclusive and accessible: a guide for educators.

Giles, S., Jackson, C. and Stephen, N., (2020). Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degrees. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(2), pp.77-78.   

Mogk, D.W., (2021). The intersection of geoethics and diversity in the geosciences. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 508(1), pp.67-99.

Posselt, J.R., Nuñez, A.M., (2022). Learning in the wild: Fieldwork, gender, and the social construction of disciplinary culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 93(2), pp.163-194.

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