Bringing the Field into the Classroom: Using Story Maps as an Inclusive Component of Virtual Field Experiences for Beginning Students

A professional headshot of Juk Bhattacharyya
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Prajukti Bhattacharyya, Ph.D.
Professor of Geology
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Professional photo of Susan Huss-Lederman
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Susan Huss-Lederman, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of English
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Dr. Christopher Atchison, who wears glasses and a silver tie, stands next to a bookshelf
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Christopher Atchison Ph.D.
Professor of Geoscience Education
University of Cincinnati

How can we bring a diversity of skills, lived experiences, ability levels, and cultural capital to enrich field-based learning experiences in the geosciences from the very beginning of students’ college careers? Unless we recalibrate the traditional approach to fieldwork that emphasizes the ability to physically and emotionally withstand living under primitive conditions in rugged terrains, and instead, provide a truly inclusive space by combining physical fieldwork with some form of virtual field experiences (VFEs), we will not be able to adequately address today’s broader challenges arising from the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. This change should occur at all levels of the geoscience curriculum to promote the ability to think across space and time from the very beginning. In this blog post, we examine how story-mapping (ArcGIS StoryMaps) as a component of VFEs can be introduced in lower-level geoscience courses as a tool to support inclusion and access, to promote a sense of caring for the environment, and to serve as a vehicle for recruiting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds in the geoscience disciplines.

Using VFEs to make fieldwork more physically accessible is not a new concept. For more than a decade, mobile technologies1 and programs such as the “Enabling Remote Activity Project” (ERA) have strived to make fieldwork more inclusive and accessible for students with visible and invisible disabilities. VFEs can mitigate alienation, harassment, and sexual assaults experienced in field situations by trainee scientists,2 people of color,3 and members of the LGBTQ communities.4,5 VFEs can allow students to explore the field without the costs6 and time commitments associated with equipment and travel, thus making field experiences economically accessible. Furthermore, VFEs incorporating story-mapping can enable students from marginalized communities to incorporate place-based stories that signal value and support for their cultural context.7 Introducing the transformative power of field-based activities in lower-level courses without the associated barriers, but with the added power of storytelling to connect people with places can invite beginning students from diverse backgrounds and abilities into the geosciences, while introducing them to spatial data visualization and analysis early on in their college career.

Story-Mapping as an Inclusive and Accessible Pedagogical Practice

Students from minoritized backgrounds may be more engaged in field-based activities that are relevant to their own community contexts because they can leverage the socio-cultural, as well as the academic, strengths that they bring to scientific study as they tell the stories of their communities. This is especially pertinent for students from indigenous communities,8 where cultural identity is rooted in places and the stories that originate in them.9 Story maps can be used for cultivating a “sense of place” in all students as they apply different lenses (e.g., scientific, social scientific, humanities) relating human experience to physical places. In fact, story-mapping can foster interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary collaborations when students from different majors create a story map together. Presenting place-based understanding through story-mapping liberates students from a rigid, linear approach that feels uninviting, while offering the opportunity for engagement through multi-layered creativity.

Furthermore, access to professional entry in the geosciences can be facilitated by story-mapping as a pedagogical practice, as it can serve as a complement to enhanced accessibility practices within the field experience.10 And, as Atchison and Libarkin11 have pointed out, perceptions about who is “fit” to engage in the geosciences excludes individuals with disabilities, who, although challenged by aspects of physical field settings, could contribute productively in professional contexts away from the field site. While story-mapping by itself may not necessarily make fieldwork more accessible, it can enhance the VFE experience for students of all ability levels to make the geosciences more appealing for those who may not originally consider these fields a good fit for their abilities, interests, or backgrounds. Story-mapping, as a component of VFE, can make it possible to virtually collaborate with field scientists working in remote locations. Story maps based on field data created off-site can be used to communicate scientific discoveries in real time, and can also help identify spatial patterns in datasets that may not be apparent otherwise. Therefore, students who face physical and/or emotional barriers to participation in fieldwork can still engage in field research in real time and make contributions to scientific inquiry.

Finally, but no less important, as Giles and colleagues6 point out, fieldwork can pose a financial barrier for students who are new to outdoor activities and lack expensive field gear and equipment. Story-mapping in a VFE can potentially mitigate such challenges, enabling students to develop professional knowledge and skills that are more reflective of future employment needs in the emerging fields related to sustainability and environment.

Story-Mapping as a Component of Lower-Level Courses: Our Experience

During spring semester 2021, we incorporated story map assignments in two undergraduate lower-level geoscience courses for non-majors to help students learn to think across space and time. Students enrolled in Environmental Geology created story maps highlighting the intricate relationships between water and farming. Students enrolled in the Volcanoes course created story maps on active volcanoes of their choosing. Students had little or no prior knowledge of the technical aspects of story-mapping, but they used a how-to guide and story map resources available on the ArcGIS website as needed.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, most students enrolled in these two courses chose to participate remotely. The story-map assignment ensured student-student and student-faculty interaction outside of regular synchronous lectures. Anecdotal evidence indicates that students from some groups traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences, such as returning adults with children and first-generation students, were highly engaged in the story-mapping activity. Students had the option to describe their learning gains from story-mapping in an end-of-semester presentation. As one student commented,

“…through the creative combination of both pictures and phrases, story maps tell a story so much better than a traditional paper or PowerPoint because the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.” 

As this comment and others like it suggest, story-mapping shows promise for recruiting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds.

Expanding Disciplinary Knowledge Through Story-Mapping: Some Examples

Through story-mapping, students can address open-ended questions, critically evaluate existing information, and identify gaps in the current knowledge base. Story-mapping can highlight the interconnected nature of the geosciences, making it appropriate for teaching Earth Systems Science. For example:

A Story About Sangay

A map of Ecuador is shown with a picture of the Sanjay volcano next to it. A fast facts box says it's one of the tallest volcanoes in the world.

In the Volcanoes course, story-mapping helped students understand the impacts of hazards on communities living near volcanoes along with the physical extents of lava flows and eruption types. This story map demonstrates how one student blended folklore, first-person narrative, social media posts, and scientific information for a multimedia presentation about the recent Sangay eruption in Ecuador and associated hazards. (Image Credit: A Story About Sangay.)

Food Doesn’t Come from the Grocery Store

An image of leafy crop rows with words below that read "Food doesn't come from the grocery store by Emily Moyer April 4, 2021"

Similarly, creating story maps on the effects of groundwater depletion on farming communities made the interconnected issues of food production, water use, climate change and the resulting drought come alive for students in the Environmental Geology course as this story map example shows. (Image Credit: Food Doesn’t Come from the Grocery Store.)

The storytelling aspect of the project enabled students to share their experiences growing up in farming areas, thereby tying the course material to the cultural wealth of their home communities12 while learning course content and connecting scientific information to human experiences.

To Till or Not To Till?

A map of the world showing four icons marking locations in Brazil, Germany, Australia, and the United States. The heading reads "No-Till Across the World"

They shared their passion for farming. (Image Credit: To Till or Not To Till?)

Coastal Saltine Farming

A heading that says "Modificating Sea Water Into H2O" hovers above a diagram of an electrolyte tank pumping into a membrane where water is being fed into and deionized water is dispensing. There is text next to the graphic that reads "Deionization and Desalination..

They offered viable solutions to the issue of water overuse for growing food. (Image Credit: Coastal Saltine Farming.)

AI & IoT in Agriculture

A heading says "Water Usage in Middle East." It hovers over a map of North Eastern Africa and the Middle East. The majority of the map is color coded in red, yellow, and orange, and a caption reads "Middle East Dryland."

They contributed their own knowledge and disciplinary backgrounds to their stories about a topic relevant to their own communities, as shown in this story map created by a computer science major about using AI and IoT in farming. (Image Credit: AI & IoT in Agriculture.)

More examples of story maps used in different disciplines and contexts can be found in this website (Explore the World of Storytelling | ArcGIS StoryMaps Gallery).

Steps for Incorporating Story-Mapping in Geosciences Curriculum

The Story Map Curriculum Portal offers many resources for using story maps in teaching. We found that lower-level, non-major courses on topics related to sustainability or environmental issues may be best suited for piloting story maps as an instructional strategy. Asking students to document and digitally disseminate personal conservation activities in their own backyards and in their own lives can encourage them to participate in local and global environmental issues, and will also give them a platform to educate others about the impacts of their actions, as this story map on sustainable coffee farming, and one on groundwater depletion in the Ogallala Aquifer. These examples demonstrate how story-mapping can be used to develop environmental stewardship in students. Asking students to interview community members for their story maps enables them to draw upon local funds of knowledge, giving voice to their communities’ experiences and wisdom.13 Eventually such story maps can contribute to a larger tapestry of stories of grassroots environmental actions and can engage students from all backgrounds in geoscience disciplines. This is essential for sustainably and equitably addressing societal issues resulting from human actions. As a first step, story-mapping can be an impactful substitute for a traditional research paper assignment in lower-level courses. Visually appealing, content-rich story maps are easily shared through social media, reaching a broader audience than traditional research papers.

The skills developed by creating story maps can complement and enhance those developed by conducting field work. However, data and sample collection skills that can only be developed through traditional fieldwork cannot, and should not, be replaced by story-mapping or other types of VFEs. An ideal balance of field work and story-mapping can give the students the best of both worlds and foster accessibility, inclusivity, and equity in the geosciences. It is also important to note that while fieldwork skills are still important for geoscience-related careers, skills developed by story-mapping and other types of VFEs, such as spatial data analyses or science communication skills are becoming just as important in geoscience careers, especially in sustainability and environment-related fields. It is therefore more important than ever to consider implementing story-mapping in lower-level non-major courses to prepare students to address today’s societal challenges. This can broaden participation and make the geosciences more inclusive and inviting, and may also mitigate some of the barriers faced by members of marginalized communities in traditional field situations while developing needed skills for workforce development. Tackling today’s planetary problems requires a diversity of perspectives. Implementing story-mapping as a pedagogical practice in geosciences is a step forward.

Further Reading

Bernard, R. E., & Cooperdock, E. H. G. (2018). No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geoscience, 11, 292–295.

Dolphin, G., Dutchak, A., Karchewski, B., & Cooper, J. (2019). Virtual field experiences in introductory geology: Addressing a capacity problem, but finding a pedagogical one. Journal of Geoscience Education, 67(2), 114-130.

Fleischner, T., Espinoza, R., Gerrish, G., Greene, H., Kimmerer, R., Lacey, E., Pace, S., Parrish, J., Swain, H., Trombulak, S. & Weisberg, S. (2017). Teaching biology in the field: Importance, challenges, and solutions. BioScience, 67(6), pp.558-567.

Hawthorne, T., Solis, P., Terry, B., Price, M. & Atchison, C.L. (2014). Critical reflection mapping as a hybrid methodology for examining socio-spatial perceptions of new research sites.   The Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(1), 22-47.

Kortz, K., Cardace, D. & Savage, B. (2020). Affective factors during field research that influence intention to persist in the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 68(2), 133-151.

Molden, O. (2020). Short take: Story-mapping experiences. Field Methods, 32(2), 131-139.

Morales, N., Bisbee O’Connell, K., McNulty, S. Berkowitz, A., Bowser, G., Giamellaro, M., & Miriti, M. (2020). Promoting inclusion in ecological field experiences: Examining and overcoming barriers to a professional rite of passage. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 101(4):e01742.

O’Connell, K., Hoke, K., Berkowitz, A.,  Branchaw, J. & Storksdieck, M. (2020). Undergraduate learning in the field: Designing experiences, assessing outcomes, and exploring future opportunities. Journal of Geoscience Education, 1-14.

Pfeifer, L., Soreghan, M., Feille, K., Soreghan, G., Weissmann, G., Ibarra, R. & Stroud, W. (2021). Activation of the Multicontext model in a field-based program for traditionally underserved students. Journal of Geoscience Education, 69(1), 85-95.

Pires, C. (2018, July 13). ‘Bad things happen in the woods’: The anxiety of hiking while Black. The Guardian, News.

Sima, R. J. (2020, July 23). Accessibility and fieldwork in the time of coronavirus, Eos, 101.