Virtual Field Trips—What I’m Taking Forward

Daniel J. Sherman is the Luce-Funded Professor of Environmental Policy and Decision Making and Director of the Sound Policy Institute at the University of Puget Sound. He studies the roles individuals and groups play in environmental politics, policy, and sustainability. In addition to his undergraduate text, Environmental Science and Sustainability, Sherman published Not Here, Not There, Not Anywhere: Politics, Social Movements, and the Disposal of Low-Level Radioactive Waste with Resources for the Future Press. He is an award-winning teacher who seeks to engage his students directly in environmental decision-making contexts.

What? No Field Trips?

I distinctly remember the panic that set in when I learned that I would not be offering in-person instruction for my introductory environmental science course in the fall of 2020. By that time, my team, made up of science and social science faculty and an experiential learning specialist, had already become accustomed to teaching lecture and discussion courses using Zoom during our hasty pivot to online learning the previous spring. But this fall course was different. 

We rely heavily on our ability to take students to field sites here in the Pacific Northwest, where we observe and study different strategies to restore habitat for Pacific salmon while learning from environmental professionals and people in the area affected by this work. In pre-pandemic times we would typically visit ten sites and meet with about two dozen guest speakers along the way. Moreover, the course is the gateway to our environmental program and serves a social function as student cohorts and faculty get to know each other on a class camping trip to Mt. Rainier and van rides to the field sites. What could we do in a distance learning environment that could approximate these kinds of experiences?

Let’s Start Filming!

We decided experiential learning was integral to this course, and started brainstorming ways to take it virtual. While we came to accept the reality that some experiences could not be re-created—there really is no substitute for camping together—we could still help our students develop understandings of the places, people, and restoration issues at the sites, with some creative filmmaking. None of the faculty had filmmaking experience, but once we gathered some microphones and tripods to use with our phones and practiced using film editing software, we felt a growing sense of enthusiasm for the creative new approach! As we tried to re-create our field trips on camera, we soon learned that filmmaking is much more time-consuming than planning and executing field trips. Each five minutes of finished film reflected an hour or more of editing. To streamline our process, we started using storyboards, shot lists, and postproduction editing plans that not only saved us time, but also made our finished products better-organized learning tools.  

Image Credit: Daniel Sherman

In fact, the filming and editing process forced us to more carefully consider our learning goals for each trip and better communicate these to the students with carefully tuned assignments. Filming also gave us more extended time with our guest speakers without students present. This helped us get to know these contributors better and enabled us to ask more questions than we typically would, and to better understand their perspectives. We could also run multiple takes to refine their contributions and then order this footage during the editing process in the way that best served the learning goals. The editing process enabled us to add voiceover, B-roll images, and text, to illustrate and clarify key points. We were even able to simulate the experience of traveling to and orienting yourself to a place by beginning each film with a Google Earth animated tour of the route along with an inset of windshield footage showing what you can see at key points of the journey. 

When it came time to integrate the films into the class, we needed a way to make sure the students were engaging together with these videos—as if they were having a shared experience on site. So we had students watch the films in small groups together, complete the related assignments, and then develop quality questions for the guests featured in the films. We then orchestrated live Zoom sessions for the class with the guests that had been in the films. We found that students were actually able to develop deeper understandings of key issues at the sites and design more probing questions for guests than they had in previous years, because they had more time to prepare together for their interactions with the guests. Without the time required for travel, we also found we had more time to reflect on the experiences afterwards in small groups and as a class. Many students told us in course feedback responses that they felt like they had really gotten to know these field sites, despite the fact that they were learning about them from hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

Using Virtual Field Trips for In-Person Teaching

Despite these surprise advantages, we were of course excited to return to our in-person field trip adventures in the fall of 2021. But what if some of the advantages of the virtual field trips could be carried forward? 

One of the reasons we put the time and resources into making the films in 2020 was because we weren’t sure what to expect the following year. In those cases where students could not attend class in 2021, the virtual field trips served as a way to keep them integrated and engaged with the rest of the class. And films like these could also be a tool for classes that do not typically allow for travel. But we found that the films also had a big benefit for the students who climbed in vans and traveled to the actual sites. We used them as orientation films before the experiences, and that helped the students better understand where they were about to go, tackle more ambitious on-site assignments, and engage with the guest speakers on a deeper level. 

We will keep using the virtual field trip films from 2020, but as they age and need updates we hope to invite students into the filmmaking process. That way, they too can benefit from the skills and knowledge gained from planning, filming and editing virtual experiences for future classes!

One thought on “Virtual Field Trips—What I’m Taking Forward

  1. Jeff Wooters

    I did much the same thing you described to produce virtual field trip videos to share over zoom for my Marine Biology Lab class during the pandemic. It took a lot of effort on my part, but students seemed to really appreciate it and many of them went to visit the field trip locations later with their friends or family members.

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