Creating the field guide: the challenge of merging Biology and Geology

By Rachel Devine

Public domain image

Compiling 26 separate contributions into a single field guide is no small feat
Public domain image

As you may or may not know, the main change to the London NERC DTP California field course this year is that it is has been predominantly student-led. Since October 2015, student representatives and staff have taken part in weekly Skype meetings to decipher the complex logistics of running the California field class, and I have been lucky(?) enough to take part in these meetings as the representative for the “Past Life and Environments” research theme. With guidance from staff, DTP students have designed and created the 10-day itinerary, booked accommodation, arranged entry to National Parks, organised food stops, liaised with overseas colleagues and even (brace yourself) appointed a student Health and Safety representative to cover the important and extensive risk assessment!

Stars & Splendid Antiques Malls

Biology field guides aid species identification.
Image used under a creative commons licence from Stars & Splendid

Soil Texture Triangle

Geology field guides aid observation.
Public domain image from Wikimedia

We recognised from an early stage that the wide-ranging scientific disciplines of the cohort presented an excellent opportunity for knowledge exchange, which typically does not occur on subject-specific field courses. As such, we decided to use the California field class as an opportunity for the cohort to design, create and implement short, 1-2hr field teaching sessions, aimed at first-year undergraduate level, to introduce different topics in biology and geology to the entire cohort. This is a valuable teaching experience as well as an opportunity to broaden our knowledge – as PhD students, we are likely to be involved in some aspect of teaching during the next four years – whether it’s fieldwork, laboratory sessions, or lectures and seminars.

Any good field class needs a handout or guide, and this is where my role comes in. Back in October, I decided to put myself forward as the coordinator of the California field guide. Being a geography/geology student, I foolishly assumed that everyone in the cohort would be used to using a field guide, or what I mean when I say “field guide”. I genuinely had no idea of the difference between a more biological field guide (typically used for species identification) and a geology field guide (based more on observations). For me, the main difference is that animals move, rocks don’t!

After encouraging members of the cohort to volunteer to take part in field teaching, it has been very exciting to read the breadth of field guide entries, with sessions on everything from seabird and reptile identification to earthquake hazards and mantle rocks! With help from fellow PhD student Alix Green, and Professor Matthew Thirlwall from Royal Holloway University, we have successfully edited and are currently in the final stages of compiling all 26 separate contributions into one document. It has been a fantastic learning experience, but I’ll be glad when it is printed and bound!

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