I was only fortunate enough to lead one overnight field trip. The class was made up of about 25 students that were mostly older than traditional student age; that is, they were adult learners in their mid-twenties to low-thirties, being in a program that was developed for students who worked during the day and took classes nights or weekends. This college freshman-level class, called Environmental Science, was only taught in the summer and had two lectures each week and two weekends devoted to field trips. In this case, the first weekend was a two-night trip to the Missouri Ozarks in mid-June. The students drove about four hours to the rendezvous where I had arranged accommodations. Remembering my student days, I assumed cheaper was better. Our two hosts owned rustic cabins on either side of the winding road that would take us to the state park in the morning. A few students had gone on down to camp in the park. Other lucky ones came with their parents and had motel accommodations. I was pleased to check everyone in, as at least we had a roof over our heads. I confess I was on the side of the road with slightly better cabins and had a cozy, dry night inside.
Outside that night, it poured rain and thundered and flashed lightning. The campers escaped, leaving behind their tents, and they drove up the road to awaken our hosts to request accommodations. I suppose most just hunkered down, crowding into a few cabins. Next morning, I was not greeted by a cheerful class. We managed breakfast on our own and met at the nature center of the state park. I always insist that students be active learners, so they filled out worksheets while wandering about the museum displays. At least one student, being aware we crossed a bridge over high water, thought we might become marooned. (The bridge was over the, at this moment, ironically named “Dry Gulch.”) I reassured her there was another road out, but I acted more confident than I really was. We had driven by the campground where campers were wading in flood waters to drag their tents to high ground. After a talk by staff at the nature center, we reconvened after lunch at a popular trail which was quite steep in places. Students were convinced that no self-respecting wildlife would be out in this kind of weather although the sun had come out. Actually, wildlife does come out when the rain has passed and the air is cool. We saw interesting sights as we passed along the trail. We waved at insect larvae, little caterpillars, that politely waved back at us. Really, that act was their sly, but sometimes over-played, reaction to moving air to convince predators that they wind-blown twigs. On top of the hill, we saw a few of the short-leaf pines that had once supported a thriving lumber business. We paused at a “dry cave,” fortunately not so dry, as I had a sneaking suspicion that if I lifted a fairly large rock in the cave, there would be an interesting sight. Indeed, there was a beautiful cave salamander under it. This humidity-loving amphibian was not the pale kind, but the beautiful, orange-spotted kind with large eyes. Pictures were taken. Then we started the real work. I am perhaps obsessed with students learning scientific method. We sampled vegetation in transects along a steep, muddy trail. A transect is a randomly established, imaginary line down the side of a hill. We identified woody vegetation which we were to compare to another habitat. This was our forest habitat sample. After our hard work, we enjoyed the trout hatchery, fed by a large, cold spring emerging from a steep hill. The facility is maintained by the state, so that Missouri residents can line up side by side and cast lures for trout from sunrise to sundown from March to November.
Now tired, we returned to our accommodations after dinner on our own. Since it was a Saturday night, with no prospect of church the next morning, I recommended that an appropriate evening’s activity was to enjoy a country music venue within easy walking distance. This was Ozark country, and here country music means church music. Disappointingly, I was the only one in attendance. At least I enjoyed it. I do not know what most students did after hours, only that they did not share my tastes in music. Most of us rested better the second night. Next morning, we drove to a glade area, our second habitat. Glades are like little, rocky deserts on steep slopes, characterized by prickly pear cactus but often adjacent to woodland. Lizards and snakes abound, as well as scorpions and tarantulas. In this habitat I would have strained to lift a rock of great weight, for such is the only roof that tarantulas will live under. We sampled transects as we had the day before in the forest. That is, all of us but one. And I cannot blame her for sitting it out in a vehicle. Apparently, the screen door of her cabin, on the other side of the road from mine, had holes in it, and vermin were free to enter. An unwelcome night quest, a brown recluse spider, had not enjoyed such close proximity and had bit her. I begged her to let me or someone else take her to a doctor. But she would not go. Reactions to these occasionally deadly spiders vary, and though it hurt something fierce, she did not figure it was going to go beyond that. After identifying woody vegetation, we went to the very nice (but expensive) lodge, where I am sure that I at least enjoyed lunch, and we talked over the data that we had collected. These facts would be the subject for a written lab report due a couple weeks after the trip. (Such things are almost inevitable in my classes.) After that we departed for home.
I always try to learn from field trips, in order to know how to improve them. I am sure some students came away with little enthusiasm for field trips. On the other hand, I knew a few students had set out on their own self-guided field trips. An important question is: what is the goal of the field trip? In this case it was to examine native plant diversity which could be done best in a large protected area. I had reconnoitered the state park thoroughly beforehand and had identified several plants and knew where certain animals were likely to be seen. What training I had had as a naturalist was very helpful, and I wish I had surveyed even more plants. Another question is: did the students learn science? The attempt was important, but I suspect my students did not fully understand the reason for transect sampling as a means to give an unbiased estimate of plant diversity and abundance. As a goal to conservation though, everyone appreciates pretty flowers, friendly larvae, and photogenic salamanders. The remaining question is: how do you find accommodations? This trip required overnight stays. My students cannot be expected to have money to spend on luxury resorts, and I had to make reservations even before the first day of class. I had talked to the hosts on the phone but not inspected the rustic cabins, some of which were not well maintained.
As an instructor, I just had to make the call and then be prepared to make the best of it.
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