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Ecology and Earth Science Virtual Field Experiences OERs: Expanding Access to Field-Based Research Techniques for Students at a Distance

Nathan Whitley-Grassi

Project Team
  • Audeliz Matias, Empire State College
  • Kevin Woo, Empire State Colleges

Empire State College


Tier One

Project Abstract:


SUNY is committed to the expansion of degree opportunities and to the development, implementation and assessment of new approaches to learning at a distance that recognize the strengths and needs of learners. A great example of this commitment is Open SUNY, a "system-wide effort designed to maximize online-enabled learning opportunities" across campuses. Furthermore, SUNY seeks to link resources and talents in targeted ways to help create a better future for New York State. In The Power of SUNY Strategic Plan (2010), Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher presented six interdependent areas of opportunity to guide SUNY and align its purpose with the state’s and nation’s needs. The first “big idea,” SUNY and the Entrepreneurial Century, calls for SUNY to “play a powerful role” in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) along the education pipeline. Innovations in science and technology are driving economic growth and have brought attention back to science degrees, particularly those with a field and laboratory component. It is, therefore, more important than ever that our students are inspired, empowered and fully engaged in STEM learning.

At Empire State College (ESC), we firmly believe that motivated adult students in science and STEM concentrations, with demanding schedules or other barriers to access, should have the opportunity to learn about scientific field research while they acquire professional development. Due to the distributed environment and working adult educational model, opportunities for students to engage in scientific field experiences are often minimal in our curriculum. Engaging in undergraduate scientific virtual field experiences would be an educational opportunity for students with a desire for an enriched learning experience in the sciences, particularly in ecology and earth sciences, both at ESC and across the SUNY system. Research shows that incorporating hands-on, field experiences with lectures has the potential to create a problem-based learning environment that engages learners in authentic scientific inquiry (e.g. Orion, 1993; Simmons et al. 2008). The proposed Ecology and Earth Science Virtual Field Experiences OERs draw on the need to develop resources and expand access to scientific field-based research techniques through open education resources (OERs) for students learning at a distance or with other barriers to access.


The development of OERs is growing in popularity as more faculty realize the collective power they can attain by sharing resources in higher education. But, the process of developing these resources can be time consuming and many times requires the use of additional resources. For this project, we propose the development, peer evaluation, and development of a repository for distribution of OERs for science learning, while supporting an instructional model that allows for further refinement, development, growth and use across SUNY and beyond.
The intellectual merit of this project lies in increasing students’ appreciation of and experience with the complex nature of scientific field techniques. The project has a broader impact on the education of STEM students taking courses at a distance, online who otherwise would not have the opportunities to learn about scientific field research and methods in ecology and earth science.

Description and Goals:

The Ecology and Earth Science Virtual Field Experiences OERs project builds on our established, blended summer course with a three -day residency at the SUNY Oneonta’s Biological Field Station and Upland Interpretive Center in Cooperstown, NY. The course consists of two parts: an 8 -week, 4-credit, upper level online component and a three-day field trip. Our proposed Tier 1 project will leverage resources utilized during the summer course to create a series of OERs. For example, both facilities visited during the face-to-face component are adjacent to Ostego Lake, which provided us the opportunity to showcase general ecology, earth science and scientific inquiry activities. We will develop dynamic OERs based on field experiences at these facilities incorporating scientific equipment as well as mobile technology demonstrated by ESC faculty and students, which could be adapted for a broad audience and/or science subject.

Our goal is to provide students with the research skills they need to increase their competency in the field after graduation by engaging them in common field research techniques and methods for data collection and analysis through a series of interactive online activities. Through the application of current technological tools, such as tablets, we will work to create an innovative approach to STEM learning and the application of the scientific method.

To support this goal, we will:
develop curriculum for a minimum of six different virtual field experiences;

perform the field activities, video record and edit the supporting documents for the virtual experiences; ensure that the final OERs are pedagogically sound, engaging, accessible, and flexible enough to be integrated in a variety of STEM curricula;
include the use of mobile and other technology such as digital probes, GPS units, and other collaborative scientific data collection tools as part of the field experiences, as appropriate;
engage students, both at ESC and across SUNY, with virtual field experiences and create a repository for future development and storage of similar OERs from across the SUNY system;
develop a peer review process and quality rubric for assessment of the OERs to ensure quality; publish OERs to a repository in the SUNY Learning Commons (SLC); and, develop a mechanism to expand the repository in the future.

The project will develop and share a minimum of six virtual field experiences in the area of ecology/earth science as OERs. The OERs could take various shapes but primarily will consist of a series of virtual field experiences supplemented with handouts and videos taken at an active field site in order to provide immersive experiences for students regardless of geographic, financial or physical barriers. Importantly, they will be designed to be broad and adaptable while providing quality material and a hands-on approach to learning about scientific field research. At least two of the OERs will give students the needed hands-on experience with mobile devices in field research. Mobile technology, such as tablets, allows us to make notations, take photographs and video, and record audio, all essential tools that enhance data collection in the field. We were able to secure money for tablets at the beginning of this year through ESC. In addition, the project will create a repository for other related OER and STEM resources for enhanced student and faculty access and use in OPEN SUNY and other system wide or campus based instruction.

Sustainability Plan:

The development of this project is tied in with the ESC Ecology and Earth Science Field Experience Residency. As a unique mode of active learning, residencies allow students to engage in a blended experience where learning occurs at a distance and online, and intersects with an intensive face-to-face component. As this is an established instructional activity, there is a sustaining funding model for the residency, so the growth and maintenance of the design and review process of new OERs could become a sustainable practice as well. The continued development of OERs, though at a slower rate than planned for the initially funded year, could be continued to be used for instructional purposes in this course and to be shared and grown through outside contributions of OERs through the repository website. The submission and review of new OERs from across the SUNY system will serve to strengthen the site by increasing quality, quantity and use of the OERs by other college faculty. In the event that continued funding is sought, the website would be grown in future years to include OERs developed at other sites throughout SUNY, to be included in OPEN SUNY initiatives such as the learning commons, and reviewed and vetted through the assessment procedure developed as part of this project.


Orion, N. A model for the development and implementation of field trips as an integral part of the science curriculum. School Science and Mathematics, v. 93, no. 6, pp. 325-331.

Simmons, M.E., X.B. Wu, S. L. Knight, and R.R. Lopez. Assessing the influence of field- and GIS-based inquiry on student attitude and conceptual knowledge in an undergraduate ecology lab. CBE Life Sciences Education, v. 7, no. 3, pp. 338-345 (2008).

Strategic Plan: 2010 & Beyond, The Power of SUNY.

Project Outcome:

Outcomes TBD