Field courses — specialized programs where students can learn on location — can boost confidence, increase competence, and create a deeper connection to an area of study, according to new research out of UC Santa Cruz (UCSC).

While the benefits of field courses apply to all, the paper finds students from underrepresented groups reap the biggest rewards.

For the study, “under-represented groups” was defined as women of all ethnicities, men and women who are black and/or American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latinx, first-generation, and/or from a low-income household. Participants who indicated non-binary genders represented 0.1 per cent of the demographic data and were not included in the study.

Researchers looked at UCSC undergrads admitted between 2008 and 2019 and compared the outcomes of students who participated in ecology and evolutionary biology field courses and those who did not.

“In addition to greater self-confidence, the findings reveal that students who take field courses are more likely to graduate from college, have higher GPAs at graduation, and are more likely to stay in the ecology and evolutionary biology major,” researchers said in a statement.

Roxanne Beltran, the first author in the study and a postdoctoral researcher says field courses offer benefits that standard lectures don’t, which may explain the success rates.

 “Students in field courses work as a team and collaborate rather than compete for the best grade,” Beltran said.

“They get to sit around a campfire and feel like part of a community. And they are interacting with faculty who aren’t standing behind a lectern, which can be intimidating.”

Beltran says insitutions interested in recruiting and retaining minority STEM students may want to consider investing in more field programs.

“If students have an early opportunity that validates what being a scientist is, that can carry them and keep them going until they get upper-division opportunities to do an internship, or a research project, or a senior thesis,” senior author Erika Zavaleta, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC says, adding that most students leave ecology and evolutionary biology majors in their first or second year.

“Let’s give these students the opportunity to do what they came here to do before they get to year three of their college experience.”

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Co-op programs have similar benefits

The findings echo that of a January study suggesting that STEM students who participate in co-op programs are more likely to find a permanent job that relates to their field.

While students from all disciplines appear to benefit from co-op training, STEM majors seem to profit more — but not all students benefit equally. Researchers found that women of all ethnicities tend to receive lower benefits than men from participating in co-op programs in terms of income, landing a first job related to their area of study, or securing permanent employment.

Deepened commitment

Still, data suggests field training can create a deeper sense of commitment and passion for a chosen field.

“By taking the students outside the classroom, they saw the relevance and meaningfulness of what they were learning. That motivated them beyond case studies,” said Consuelo Waight, the lead author of a December 2019 paper on co-op training and student job satisfaction.

“Organization development was now personal. It was not a concept in a book.”

Beltran and Zavaleta hope their work will prompt UCSC to make field courses more available and accessible, particularly to STEM minorities.

Diversity in STEM fields is critical,” Beltran said. 

“Scientists can help solve global challenges like disease outbreaks and climate change. But we can’t do that without the diversity of ideas that comes from diverse experiences. Our success is tied unequivocally to the diversity of the scientists doing the work.”