Get Outside: Field Trips & Teaching Environmental History

The Magic School Bus anticipates climate change anxiety, and traumatizes children about field trips (1996)

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post in the Get Outside: Field Trips & Environmental History series.

When I hear the term “field trip,” all that comes to mind is one sunny fall day at Black Creek Pioneer Village, eating those faux-pioneer hard candy sticks from the general store. I certainly can’t remember ever taking a field trip as part of my university history classes, despite the fact that we were ten minutes from the Halifax Citadel. Maybe field trips were considered too … high-schoolish? Anywhere we went was in our imagination, by reading and listening. And you know, that was okay.

But environmental history is about situating people in nature. And at this time of year – when we’re desperate for spring (and enviously side-eyeing pictures of cherry blossoms from Victoria) – it’s nice to think about getting outside.

Groves Mill, Buffalo Creek, Union County, Pennsylvania.

Since we keep getting told to do “high impact teaching” (gah ~ ed.)  and since our campus borders one of the largest rivers in the eastern United States, last fall I decided to add two short trips to my “Rivers of North America” class. One was to a series of mill sites along Buffalo Creek, including one of the oldest operating grist mills in the country. The other was to a section of the Pennsylvania Canal that was cut in the mid-nineteenth century to run parallel to the Susquehanna River. Both trips were led by a geomorphologist with our Center for Sustainability and Environment.

I’m going to do it again, but things I didn’t appreciate include:

  • How much work they are
  • How much good weather makes a difference
  • The fact someone has to pay for them
  • That not all students will dress appropriately
  • That other historians think environmental historians canoe to work, forage for wild plants, and can tell what side of the tree moss grows on, but …
  • … students – who sign up for three-hour field labs in geology with equanimity – don’t expect to leave the room in a history class
  • The odd feeling of not being in control, but …
  • … how great it is to see someone else who isn’t an environmental historian doing environmental history
  • How off-the-rails things can go
Looking south down the old Pennsylvania Canal (West Branch) route. There be dragons. Terrible, blood-sucking dragons.
There are no students in this photograph because they have all fled for their lives.

Case in point: last summer we had an unusual amount of rain (#climatechange), and the fall was relatively mild. As Ben led us single-file along the canal towpath through the tall grasses – toward what? to where? – students began asking if we were in a Stephen King novel. Then we noticed the stagnant water in the old canal bed. And then … swarms of mosquitoes. Clouds of mosquitoes. The students were blanketed by them, yelping and swatting each other. Ben was torn between horror and … still really wanting to get to Lock 14. Democracy and free will won out. Within twenty minutes, the class was running back to the bus. And I was Googling “Center for Disease Control” and “infectious diseases,” and imagining awkward conversations with the provost.

Lessons learned: do more pre-trip prep so the students don’t think you’re taking them out to be murdered, wear long pants, maybe teach the course in the spring semester.

Others, though, are wiser and more experienced. Over the next few months, we’ll hear about field trips from different courses, to different places, and with different interests, from day excursions to full camping trips (they’re mad ~ ed.)

Contributors were asked to respond to a series of questions:

  • Name of the course and trip destination
  • How would you describe it one word?
  • What was the rationale for the trip? How did it fit in the course? What did you hope to accomplish?
  • What actually happened?
  • What was the most productive or effective part of the experience for your students?
  • What would (or will) you do differently?
  • What words of advice do you have about field trips for environmental history classes?

And what about you, dear readers? Do you have a memorable, instructive, experience or horror story? Contact if you’d like to contribute to this series, or comment below.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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