Keeping the wolf from the door

June 26, 1998

Field trips, once a staple of geography teaching, are expensive and sometimes dangerous. Is the advent of computer simulation making them redundant? Alison Utley (top) and David Unwin look at the end of an era

Dick Selley, professor of geology at Imperial College, had double hip replacements at 53 after years of carrying heavy rucksacks up hillsides. He was also chased by a wolf, nearly shipwrecked, lost in the desert and stalked by polar bears. All in the name of university field trips.

But despite the risks, he and many other members of the "hairy knee brigade" are worried about the decline of field courses in university departments today.

Whether it was two weeks in mid-Wales or two months in Montserrat, field trips used to be the heart of university teaching in earth science subjects and in archaeology.

But no more. With purse-strings being pulled so tight, more and more departments are quietly dropping trips, often making do with computer simulations.

The Geological Society is doing what it can to keep compulsory fieldwork in the curriculum. Spokesman Ted Nield said they were becoming expendable because universities are short of money and academics are short of time. "There is no doubt the field trip is under threat because it is expensive, time-consuming and messy," he said. The society is refusing accreditation to some university departments because they are not offering compulsory field work. But does it matter? Are taxpayers really getting good value for money by sending thousands of students off to do work which could, arguably, be done just as well in a university laboratory using virtual technology?

Bill McGuire, professor of geohazards at University College London, has just returned from a fact-finding mission in the Bahamas, Miami and the Azores. But he still remembers his six-week rain-soaked tour of Western Ireland as an undergraduate with great fondness. "It was all-round preparation," he said. "Something you just don't get in a lecture theatre."

Geographer Ron Cooke, now vice-chancellor of York University, is another enthusiast despite being shot at in the desert three times. "Fieldwork training is absolutely fundamental, it is not an option," he said. While virtual technology may complement the field course, students are dependent on information put in to the computer by someone who has been there. "The difference between monitoring dune migration in Oman and modelling it on computer is vast. It is infinitely more difficult to do it in Oman and there is the constant conflict between science and survival." A survey of 65 universities carried out by Nathan Williams of Birkbeck College found that the top locations for fieldwork in the United Kingdom are south Devon, Dorset, North Wales, and the Lake District.

Spain and France top the European locations and there are a small number of departments which ran trips to more exotic places like Kenya, Malaysia and Senegal.

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