It’s time to change the geosciences’ outdated, exclusionary, and ableist field requirements

I was standing at the base of an outcrop in the middle of Wyoming’s desert, one of the emptiest and most desolate places I’ve ever been. A cloudless blue sky stretched between two buttes, miles apart, a dried-out valley filling the expanse between their dusty red walls. Sage bushes six feet tall, dense as a jungle, covered the silty valley floor, with a parched riverbed cutting an empty swath through the green. It was midmorning but already hot enough to have forced off my requisite flannel. I glanced at my GPS watch, which also has a heart beat monitor. Standing still, it read 130 beats per minute. I checked my pockets; yes, I had my electrolyte tablets and extra protein bars. I had over four liters of water in my pack. I looked at the shadeless slope I would be spending my day on, and I hoped that I’d prepared enough that would keep me from getting too dizzy, losing feeling in my limbs, or even passing out. 

Planning for fieldwork with a chronic illness – especially one that can be unpredictable and worse with heat and exertion – is stressful, to say the least. Beyond the logistics of bringing all the right supplies, there’s inherent anxiety in uncertainty. What will happen if I get a migraine while I’m driving on the highway? What will I do if I wake up in the field and my blood pressure just won’t behave, and I can’t stand up? With Postural Orthostatic Tachycardiac Syndrome (POTS), these parts of my daily life get amplified – silently and often invisibly – when I’m in the field. But geology is not a field that invites discussions of perceived weakness or solutions around disability, and it can be incredibly isolating and demoralizing.

But geology is not a field that invites discussions of perceived weakness or solutions around disability, and it can be incredibly isolating and demoralizing.

The importance of making the geosciences more inclusive hit me clearly one summer when I was teaching at field camp – again, in Wyoming, albeit a less rural locale. For each field-based course, instructors receive a list of students’ medical concerns. I noticed two students had listed blood pressure and fainting concerns; I filed it away but did not directly ask them about it. But as we stood in the sun on a treeless hill outside of Jackson, I noticed the telltale early symptoms and added an electrolyte tablet to my water bottle. One of those students happened to be with me and commented on what a lifesaver they were; I agreed and referenced my POTS obliquely. (I didn’t want my students to think I was an unfit instructor, or to lose their confidence in me.) As chance would have it, this student also happened to have POTS, and we began talking, sharing our experiences in the field. The other student overheard and joined us. Soon, we had an informal support network; because of this unlikely occurrence, I could provide far better and more nuanced support for my students in the field – both physically and mentally. 

Not only could I bring a few extra electrolyte tablets along, but the students had someone who understood their concerns and needs. And, to be honest, so did I. The other graduate student I was teaching with was aware of my chronic illness and trusted that I could take care of myself – and was there for me when I did need help – but that’s not the same as connecting with someone who knows what you’re dealing with, who has been there, and who can hand you pretzels and sit beside you without feeling judged or hurried while the rest of the class moves on. As instructors on campus, we try to connect with and support our students who are struggling with mental health concerns. I’m open there, too; I let a student know that I’ve been there, and it’s hard, and I understand. We should have the same standards for the field components of geoscience, too.

Quarantine and travel restrictions prompted field camps to be shuttered or moved online this summer. While that has certainly created logistical headaches, it should also raise the questions: What skills do we want our students to take away from this experience, and how can we reach those learning goals while being inclusive?

Geoscience programs should use this moment to pivot and to become more inclusive. This includes changing the stereotype of what a geologist looks like. Historically, geology has been dominated by able-bodied white men, and that has led to an Indiana Jones-esque stereotype of who can be successful in the geosciences. If you physically cannot move over rough terrain or be in the backcountry, you might be dissuaded from even approaching geology because of field trip and field camp requirements (these aspects are often heavily advertised by departments as recruiting tools). There are myriad reasons why someone might not be able to attend field components besides physical inability: financial burden (either cost-prohibitive or a need to work), being a primary caregiver, race- and gender-related safety concerns (particularly in rural areas), or feeling like they don’t have the outdoor experience needed to make it through weeks of camping and hiking.

Geoscience programs should use this moment to pivot and to become more inclusive.

If you cannot do field work for any of these reasons, geology programs communicate implicitly that you are not welcome because many require field courses to obtain a degree. This requirement is outdated at best and biased/exclusionary at worst. Geoscience has become, over the past century, an incredibly interdisciplinary field, and there are so many sub-disciplines where an intense, weeks-long field experience simply isn’t necessary training. For a geophysicist, an intense modeling and statistics class would be more helpful; for an isotope chemist interested in methods development, a short course in specific analytical tools would make more sense; and for ecology- and society-minded geoscientists, a local, near-campus community science experience could be more meaningful. 

We should revisit the branding that makes it seem like field-based science is the extent of geosciences and change our advertising to recruit students with more diverse backgrounds and experiences, not only those who are already avid backpackers. If field camps’ learning goals can be accomplished remotely or locally, we should offer those options even after the pandemic ends. And we should have open and honest conversations about what students and instructors need to feel supported and safe. Doing so would help geosciences be more inclusive both physically and experientially, making the field more diverse and welcoming.

Follow Rebecca’s work at rebeccadzombak.com or @bdzombak on Twitter.

Feature image by Bekah Stein (Rebecca’s labmate). Caption: My ‘invisible illness’ is a struggle, but I can still do fieldwork, which isn’t true for many people with chronic issues or disabilities.

Rebecca Dzombak
Rebecca Dzombak

Becca is a graduate student and writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She studies how Earth's landscapes, life, and climates have changed over three billion years, and she writes about climate change, the environment, and the intersection of academia, race, and gender.

6 thoughts on “It’s time to change the geosciences’ outdated, exclusionary, and ableist field requirements

  1. 40 some years ago, my field camp was in the Smokies and the adjacent Valley and Ridge, not the out west boot camp experience. I can recall only a few instances where my work required field mapping skills. I can see the holdovers of Victorian gentlemen hiking in suits and John Wesley Powell going down the Grand Canyon. But that does not have to be part of a geoscience career these days. Most geologists like being outside. It’s where the rocks are. But field camp does not have to be your personal Darwinian survival of the fittest experiment.

  2. Lovely article Becca!!!
    As you pointed out, this is so important not only for accessibility issues, but general belief about the “hardy backcountry geologist” stereotype. Just not feeling like you have the outdoor experience can be so rough on students – I have had more than one student cry after 8+ round mile hikes they had to embark on their first week! They were genuinely interested in geology but outdoorsmenship expected of them was really rough. And also remember profs being annoyed and commenting at their “attitude” and even caught myself being (likely) obviously frustrated. It can create such an unwelcoming environment so quickly and while field camp has made many a geologist, it has also turned multiples away (that I know of). I also know of at least one peer who in undergrad didn’t get their degree because they couldn’t do the 3 week intensive field course and it is so often a REQUIREMENT in Earth departments to graduate.
    More convos about this will hopefully continue to force geosciences to constantly check and reassess their image and beliefs they are consciously (or unconsciously) generating.

  3. The problem in Britain is not the heat but the wind and the rain. And we stay in hotels. Many professional geologists work on marine seismic data and never need to leave the office.

  4. Also in the UK oil companies are required to deposit their cores in a government store, where they may be studied by anyone after five years, so it is possible to do an original project on real rocks without leaving the lab.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience, it is very valuable. I am currently at a lab in the UK where practically I only work with women. That is not a problem when it comes to lifting and carrying equipment and no one makes even a comment about it. Often the male PhDs from the lab would ask me/us for assistance with fieldwork. So, that is great and gender is really not an issue. (Some good news)
    Now, I am wary of doing fieldwork on my own. Did I get it right that you were on your own in the heat? Being someone with POTS (I have a friend with it) or the sturdiest person on Earth, I believe from a health and safety perspective there should always be 2 people going. There is just too many things that can go wrong, especially when at a remote location. At the uni where I do my PhD here in the UK it is a common practice to alone. That should be revised by the institution, as by sending two people H&S is covered and you’d allow more diversity and inclusivity in field work.

    On the point of actually offering more practical courses (e.g. modelling, statistics) I totally agree. It is an issue in education at all levels, isn’t it? Everybody does the same courses but that does not ensure we all develop our potential. A fellow hydrologist hated fieldwork but is an absolutely amazing flood modeller. Is she less suited to pursue a career in geosciences? I think not.

    Thanks again for this article, it invites to reflexion and raises awareness.

  6. To Rebecca Dzombak, indeed we came a long way in the geosciences to reconsider the way we conduct summer field camp, often known as capstone course for geosciences majors and is required of them to successfully complete to graduate with a degree. COVID-19 pandemic is already forcing us to think outside the box and be creative, innovative and mindful about the way we impart lessons both in person and virtual setting. It is true that field experience can strengthen and augment students’ classroom knowledge and validate the importance of in situ observational skills. Geology started with this theme as observation skills can empower one’s understanding of geological principles connected with various processes. I am not saying that it can be replaced totally by transitioning to all virtual or laboratory-based instructions. I believe many geosciences disciplines are contemplating or already agreeing to offer two tracks where students can fulfill the capstone requirement by either attending summer geology camp or using equivalent hours through internship in a research laboratory. It is the prime time to think about the “New Normal” due to COVID-19 pandemic and design summer courses with new modules to adopt to the new situation. I totally agree with physical disability being a deterrent to earning required credits through actual field experience and we must offer an alternative platform to allow us to be considered as an all-inclusive pedagogically sound geosciences discipline. In addition, financial burden incurred by students is also needed to be revisited since the availability of financial aid for summer courses are getting restricted. By the way, I spend many summers in north-central Wyoming, primarily the Bighorn Basin and echo the feelings narrated in this article. Yes, it does offer a classic site concerning field geology with spectacular, textbook quality outcrops, from simple to completely folded nature, and the experience being there can be phenomenal. Thank you for bringing up an important issue that is becoming a strategic element in curriculum development design and forcing many geosciences disciplines to consider different tracks pertaining to offering field geology.

Leave a Reply to meglikescrinoids Cancel reply