I had always thought that my dream job (naive as it may sound) would involve being on-site somewhere, perhaps with my afternoons spent deep in the archives of a foreign library, scrolling over the brittle vellum of a medieval manuscript; or maybe occupied with work far up north, hiking across tundra with a pack full of equipment, hearing nothing but the sound of wind sweeping over low-growing scrub.
It hadn’t dawned on me that if I could expect this much from a job, perhaps I should start to hold classes up to the same standards. After all, where does it say that spending four months sitting at a desk, staring at a projected computer screen and mercilessly scribbling down notes is ideal? Why can’t we go outside to learn? What kinds of practical skills do we obtain from taking binders full of notes and participating in two-hour laboratories, going through lab procedures as if making banana bread from a recipe?
Thanks to summer field courses, it turns out we can make the most of our classes, learning real skills in interesting places all over the world. I’m referring mainly to the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) field trips because those are the ones that I’ve been looking into over the past couple of weeks. Among a number of others, a taste for a few of the courses offered over the summer of 2010 include:
EEB401, Marine Biology: Held in Passamaquoddy Bay, NB, for two weeks in late May, the course is based on studying, by boat and along the shoreline, the invertebrate and algal communities found in the Bay of Fundy.
EEB 409, Field Ornithology: Two weeks spent in Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay in May, during the height of the spring migration, this course is designed to teach about practical skills like netting, banding and bird identification.
EEB410, Lake Ecosystem Dynamics: The last half of August could be spent on the water in Algonquin Park learning about the chemical and physical properties of boreal lakes, as well as limnological (freshwater) ecology.
EEB360, Entomology: Including one week in early September in Algonquin Park, this course involves learning about the (many!) orders of insects, along with techniques on pinning, identification and preparation of specimens.
EEB306, Tropical Forest Conservation: this year the course involves collecting data on birds, insects and plant in the Caribbean.
A lot of departments have these types of courses, including (among others):
Geography: GGR381H, field course in Environmental Geography; and GGR382H, field course in Human Geography.
Geology: GLG340H, field course on Manitoulin Island; GLG445H, field course at Benny Belt; and GLG448, field course at Chalk River.
Forestry: FOR301: field methods in Forest Conservation.
Centre of Environment: ENV395Y: Special Topics Field Course, a class with a changing focus from year to year.
The EEB field courses involve a week or two in the summer doing work on-site and one subsequent term, usually in the fall, spent doing related course work. So, for example, in EEB360, the insects collected in Algonquin Park during the last weeks of summer are brought to U of T and eventually produce a collection as a final term project, completed around December.
An application to sign up for courses is usually due quite early in the winter. The EEB dealine for applications, for example, was Feb 5, but students can still apply and stand a good chance of getting in if there is room available. Costs vary depending on the duration and location of the course, ranging from about $300 for local trips to several thousand for those in Asia and the Caribbean. Applying for grants can help make these courses more accessible to students already mired in the muck of student loans or lacking the necessary funds.
For more information on field courses, check out department websites. This year, the EEB’s annual information session has also been posted to Youtube, so you can listen to professors and organizers talk about upcoming trips:
An example from one course, EEB405, Experimental Ecology & Evolution in Southern Ontario:
While there are a few obvious drawbacks to on-site learning (transportation to the tundra starts to get expensive when it occurs on a weekly basis), there are also huge advantages. The most obvious is hands-on experience, which really can be hard to get unless you get an internship, a job or a research position in a related field. Because the classes are often small (usually 16-20 students per group), field courses are a great way to meet professors and students with similar interests, to get good references and they look great on a resume or a grad school application.
Along with the palpable skills and assets gained from field courses, they also sound worthy of participation based on content alone: school doesn’t get too much more interesting than when it involves a summer spent identifying insects, whales and algae all around the world.