International geosciences field research with undergraduate students; three models for experiential learning projects investigating active tectonics of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
International geosciences field research with undergraduate students; three models for experiential learning projects investigating active tectonics of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica (in Field geology education; historical perspectives and modern approaches, Steven J. Whitmeyer (editor), David W. Mogk (editor) and Eric J. Pyle (editor))
Special Paper - Geological Society of America (December 2009) 461: 77-98
International field experiences offer exceptional opportunities for effective student learning in the geosciences. Over the 10 yr period between 1998 and 2008, more than 40 undergraduate students from 14 institutions participated in field research investigating active tectonics on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Three different project models were used: (1) a month-long summer research project, (2) a series of 1 to 2 wk independent field study projects, and (3) a week-long field research module. These projects shared a common research theme (active tectonics), field area (Nicoya Peninsula), and pedagogy (experiential learning), thus allowing for easy comparison of teaching methods, logistics, and learning outcomes. Each model has unique pedagogical benefits and challenges, and is therefore better suited for a different group size, student to faculty ratio, project duration, and budget. Collectively, these student research projects generated significant publishable data relevant to ongoing investigations of forearc tectonics and earthquake hazards along the Costa Rican Pacific margin. Individual student projects were carefully designed to provide a quality field learning experience, while adding a new piece to the larger research puzzle. Indicators of project success include levels of student engagement; gains in technical and cognitive field skills; and productivity of student-authored publications, reports, and presentations. Students commonly described these projects as instrumental in shaping their professional identity as geoscientists. Blending international field research with experiential learning pedagogy creates a powerful synergy that captures student imagination and motivates learning. By placing students beyond the comfort of their home learning environment, international field projects pique student curiosity, sharpen awareness and comprehension, and amplify the desire to learn. Experiential learning pedagogy encourages students to define their own research agenda and solve problems through critical thinking, inquiry, and reflection. The potent combination of international fieldwork and experiential learning helps students to develop the self-confidence and reasoning skills needed to solve multifaceted real-world problems, and provides exceptional training for graduate school and professional careers in the geosciences.