Tuesday, April 8, 2014

There’s something about field trips

I take students on field trips at least twice a year, if not three times or more. These trips are usually a week or more to locations such as Costa Rica, Belize, Scotland, the Galapagos, the Amazon and even Antarctica. I've done well over thirty field trips over the past 15 years. I am a staunch advocate of the educational value of these trips. As one student said to me on a recent trip to Costa Rica: “The lectures make sense to me now. You just don’t really understand how a rainforest ecosystem works unless you actually see it.” I’m believe in taking students to developing countries, especially if they are in the environmental field, to show than how the majority of the world lives and how activities in the developed world can negatively impact those in the developing nations. Anyone who is planning to do graduate studies in ecology or conservation should definitely go on a field trip - there is nothing like one of these trips to really show you the difference between what seems so simple in a project proposal and the actual technical and logistical difficulties of working in the field. 

But there’s something else about field trips too in the bonds and friendships they can build. I have old students from nearly a decade ago that I am still in touch with, who I met through field courses. My closest friends (besties) I got to know via field courses. My two best friends have both been on over six international field trips with me over the years, and now they are pretty much like family.

On field trips you really get to know people. Being around others 24/7 in sweaty humid jungles, freezing cold or rain, in dodgy accommodation with dodgier plumbing, braving poisonous snakes and biting insects, working long hours and getting little sleep – to get to see people who they really are, and whether you can love them or hate them. Many a glowing recommendation has been the result of a field trip. I've recruited many from past trips to be my graduate students – even if their grades are not 4.0s across the board, I know I can rely on them to get the work done without complaining; that they will listen to my advice; they either put up with or call me on my bad habits; and will do a thorough job with enthusiasm. Thanks to field trips I know who I can rely on when the chips are down – who I would want in my lifeboat, or in a barricaded mall with me come the zombie apocalypse.

Relationships built on these trips usually last. I have a group of friends I get together with regularly to drink and play games – we realized the other weekend that they all went on one of my field trips at some time or other, and we've all kept in touch over the years. Moreover, several very successful long-term romantic relationships were spawned by field trips. When you live with someone in a jungle bunkhouse, you see them at the crack of dawn, in clothes that are distinctly musty after having been worn for several days, with dirty hair and no make-up and sweat pouring down their face, and you still find them really attractive and want to be with them all the time nonetheless, that’s a very good basis for a future relationship. Someone liking you when you are in your best clothes, smelling nice and on your best behavior is simply no comparison to someone who likes you and cares for you when you are tired, grumpy and look like you've been dragged out of a badger’s burrow backwards. If you want to know if someone is a keeper, have a date with them in a sweaty rainforest or a cramped boat during a rainstorm, rather than swanky restaurant.

Occasionally you do have someone you really connect with on a trip who to your surprise you never see again, but this is rare and there is usually something else going on (e.g. in the case of two of my students, the fact one of them was engaged to someone who was possessive to say the least, led to them cutting ties completely when they got home) but this is very much the exception. My facebook profile is full of former field trip participants who I consider good friends and colleagues, who I still chat with. Some on a weekly, if not nearly daily, basis.

My life was changed on a field trip. On a trip to South Africa I had resolved to take a career path that was financially secure, but outside of academia and marine biology, but I was encourage by a colleague (then a PhD student) on that trip (who I recently went drinking with 20 years later – I was dressed as a pirate, he was dressed as bat girl) that my scientific ideas were excellent, and that I shouldn't give up on my dreams and should give research on whales and dolphins a shot.  I haven’t looked back. Several other friends say the same that a field trip encourage them to go on to graduate school, or become a conservationist/researcher/teacher.

I often hear students 'hum' and 'ha' about going on a field trip. They are often expensive, but so are many things. You could easily spend a few thousand dollars fixing your car, or you could spend the same getting an educational experience that might change your life, or make relationships that could be the most important you’ll ever have. 

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