Education Feature

Accessibility and Fieldwork in the Time of Coronavirus

Fieldwork in the geosciences is increasingly relying on groundwork laid by accessibility advocates.

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted human activities worldwide, and fieldwork in the geosciences is no exception. With physical distancing requirements and concerns for the safety of students and instructors, many university programs are scrambling to provide access to fieldwork, an essential component of the curriculum.

For some geoscientists, getting access to the field is not a new challenge. Disability rights advocates have worked tirelessly to develop innovations and push for more accommodations and inclusivity.

“People have been trying to work on accessible or virtual field options for years, and we’ve been sort of fighting against the current,” said Anita Marshall, a geologist at the University of Florida and the director of operations at the International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD).

But now the pandemic has highlighted accessibility as an important issue that impacts everyone in the geosciences, and more people are listening to accessibility advocates—and using the groundwork they’ve laid and tools they’ve built.

“This year, since everybody’s in the same boat, suddenly there’s this huge community effort that’s gone into making these kinds of accessible field options,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of exciting that the progress that’s being made won’t be unmade when the pandemic ends and we’ll have this leap forward in accessible field course options.”

Everybody Benefits When Diverse Voices Are at the Table

To understand how fieldwork can be made more accessible during a pandemic, it’s important to first understand why advocates had been working on this issue long before the new coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) first emerged.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in five Americans have a disability. “That cuts across every demographic,” Marshall said. “When you ignore accessibility issues, you’re telling 20% of any underrepresented group that the geosciences are not for them.” In fact, the geosciences are among the least diverse fields of the many disciplines associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Group of people gathered on a beach with a rock formation in the background
Programs like the School of Rock are important for promoting professional development and field opportunities. Leah Miller attended the 2019 program in San Diego. Credit: Leah Miller

Fieldwork is integral to the geosciences. For undergraduates in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom, a field course is often a degree requirement. But for those with a disability (as well as people with family commitments, financial constraints, and other work requirements) it can be a barrier to being included in the first place. Losing their perspectives is a loss for the field.

“Students with disabilities can have very different perspectives about the world around us,” said Christopher Atchison, an associate professor of geoscience education at the University of Cincinnati and the executive director of IAGD. “Creating an accessible or inclusive community of learning enables everyone to share those very diverse worldviews,” which is important for scientific innovation.

“The truth is any of us could acquire a new disability any day,” said Michele Cooke, a geosciences professor and graduate program director at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s really in all of our best interests to work on this issue,” said Cooke, who says her hearing loss profoundly influences her research and teaching.

For Marshall, the fight for increased accessibility is also important for a personal reason. When she entered the geosciences as an undergraduate and then master’s student at the University of Arkansas, she was “very much into the field culture, hiking, and doing all the things that attract outdoorsy people to geology,” Marshall said.

“And then in the last year of my master’s degree, I was in a near-fatal car accident.”

As Marshall details in a 2018 blog post, the accident’s aftermath required multiple surgeries, 7 years of rehabilitation, and relearning to walk on a leg with permanent limitations.

“Needless to say, it changed a lot of my opinions on what it means to be a geologist,” she said. “It shifted the focus from that physically fit mountain hiker to something else. And it took me years to figure out what that something else was.”

“The work that I do also ensures that I can keep doing the geology that I love and that people—the students and young professionals coming up behind me—hopefully are coming into a more inclusive, more adaptive, more innovative field that will welcome them,” Marshall said.

Using Technology to Bridge the Access Gap

Before COVID-19, only a handful of schools provided virtual field course options, such as the University of Leeds’ Virtual Landscapes program and the Enabling Remote Activity project at the Open University, both based in the United Kingdom, and the Accessible Earth program at the University of Arizona. But for the most part, geoscience programs were not aggressive in developing similar virtual learning activities because they did not perceive a demand for them, Marshall said.

Now “there’s certainly an uptick in the requests for innovative online field focus activities,” said Lisa White, a geoscientist and director of education and outreach of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology.

Streaming technologies and remote work—things that accessibility advocates have been supporting for years—are suddenly needed by everyone. And more geoscientists are interested in using already-existing visualization tools (like Google Earth, remote sensing resources from NASA, and ultrahigh-resolution GigaPan photography) for remote field instruction, said White, who also chairs AGU’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.

Technology has also made physical field trips more accessible by implementing mobile Wi-Fi hot spots, iPads, and walkie-talkies to help disabled students communicate and collaborate with nondisabled students in areas they can’t reach. Drones are also used to get to places no human can go, disabled or not.

For the visually impaired, 3D printing helps make fossils and specimens more accessible. Some schools are also building databases of tactile maps and images using thermal paper that blisters with heat.

But smaller adjustments are important as well, said Brett Gilley, a geologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Gilley, with Atchison, coauthored an article in Nature Geoscience about how selecting field locations that could accommodate a bus with a chair lift, using audio field guides, and creating a community could improve inclusion of an underrepresented population. “Often, the accommodations are not as much trouble as you think,” Gilley said.

All of the accessibility advocates Eos spoke with highlighted the importance of Universal Design for Learning principles—designing learning materials for the broadest possible group.

“It provides an opportunity for really focusing on what’s important for your [learning objectives],” Cooke said.

“All the tools that we use to try to make field science more accessible for people with disabilities has also benefited the students on the projects that didn’t have disabilities,” Marshall said. “Adding those new ways to explore data or collect data or look at the world helps everybody.”

Rapid Response to COVID-19

As it became clear that traditional fieldwork could not continue this year, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), in collaboration with IAGD, rapidly worked to design remote field experiences in response to the pandemic, said Atchison.

Starting with a webinar on 23 March, over 160 geology field instructors from around the world worked to identify and plan for teaching different disciplinary topics in the geosciences, Atchison said. By the second week, the group grew to almost 250 people.

Volunteers had to work quickly because many of the summer field experiences for students were set to start in mid-May. They developed a community-wide list of learning objectives as well as learning modules that break down a 6-week field camp into introductory and advanced field activities for instructors to use. These entirely virtual modules are available for instructors and students for free on the NAGT website.

“All of this has taken place in less than 2 months,” Atchison said. “We went from realizing that there was an issue to having a community-developed repository of resources and activities available. The immediate collaboration was pretty remarkable.”

NAGT was able to share all these resources quickly because they knew about and used what was already available, much of it founded in the work that IAGD had done over the past decade. “A lot of it is modified from existing resources,” Atchison said. “We wanted to pull out of the community what currently exists because there’s a lot of great things that already exist.”

The Value of Physical Field Work and Its Accessibility

Atchison emphasizes that virtual accessibility tools and resources are created to complement physical work in the field—not to be a replacement for field activities. “There is no way to make field leaning as effective as it is in person,” he said. “There’s no way to do it remotely.”

“[The geosciences] are much more connected to the real world than a lot of the other sciences are,” said Gilley. “It’s just one of the things that makes us unique. That’s why we do this [accessibility advocacy] work—we’re trying to make sure that people can experience it.”

Back in 2014, Leah Miller, an interdisciplinary arts and science undergraduate student at the University of Washington Tacoma, did her first field project in college and decided she wanted to be a field geologist. Then she had an accident, breaking her leg in three places and requiring emergency surgery.

“No joke, right after my accident, one of the first things I thought was ‘I’m never going to be able to do field science,’” Miller said. “I still picture it. I’m still in the hospital, and I was just so sad about that.”

She had been in a cast for 5 months when she saw an ad on Facebook. “The [Geological Society of America] posted a thing like ‘Do you know any disabled geoscience students?’ and I was like, ‘Hey, how did you know, Facebook?’” Miller said.

Miller applied and was accepted for a National Science Foundation–funded Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Pathways into the Geosciences – Earth, Ocean, Polar and Atmospheric Sciences (IUSE:GEOPAths) accessibility project that took her on field trips in the Grand Canyon and Ireland. The first trip to the Grand Canyon “was a little scary, to be honest, because that was my first time [in the field] since my accident,” Miller said. “At that point, I had only been walking again for about 5 months.”

There were also technical challenges. “I had no idea of what [accommodations] I would have needed, so we just had to play everything by ear,” Miller said. Students with disabilities were paired with ones without them and given iPads to livestream and walkie-talkies to communicate in the field, but in some remote locations there was no cellular signal. So on the subsequent Ireland trip, a tech support person tagged along to set up mobile Internet hot spots in the field, and things went much smoother, Miller added.

“One of the best parts about it was it didn’t seem any different than any other field project I’d done,” Miller said. “It just made it where I could still participate.”

Smiling young woman holds an iPad while sitting in a van
Geology fieldwork in Ireland was made more accessible by iPads, as seen by Leah Miller and Chris Atchison in 2017. Credit: Anita Marshall

This inclusion is important, Marshall said. “So much of our science is tangled up in physical ability, and what I realized is that it didn’t have to be. There was no necessary connection,” she said. “Driving to an outcrop doesn’t change the outcrop. Whether you hike or drive there, the rock doesn’t care.”

The impact of being included has been profound for students like Miller, who has gone on several more field trips, including one at sea on the R/V Endeavor. Miller is now actively involved in disabilities outreach with IAGD and has served on the Commission for People with disAbilities at Seattle City Hall.

“If it hadn’t been for the IAGD, I don’t know what I would be doing,” Miller said. “It definitely changed my life for the better. I have to say I’ve done so much and I’ve accomplished so many things because of it.”

Accessible Geosciences in a Postpandemic World

Long after the pandemic is behind us, accessibility advocates will continue to develop and fight for accommodations in the field with the hope that momentum can continue the progress currently being made.

“It’s easy to become jaded when you work in accessibility in the geosciences because it has been an uphill road for many years, and I really hope that the current interest and openness to alternative ways of doing things sticks around,” said Marshall. “I hope we don’t just throw that in the dustbin once the pandemic ends because it’s made people really take a hard look at why we do what we do.”

The tools and resources that have been developed and implemented will likely not go away.

“I think as a result of this pandemic, we’re going to see a very new way of instructing across the board, whether it’s in classrooms, laboratories, or field work,” Atchison said. “We’re going to start to see more of a hybrid approach to teaching and learning” integrating virtual and physical options.

White agrees: “I wouldn’t say there’s no going back, but I don’t see abandoning all of these great resources that people are working on when we are able to get back in the classroom.”

There is hope that lessons learned about the importance of accessibility and inclusion, including student and faculty empowerment, will endure as well. “I don’t think it’s in our best interest to decide how students should be doing, especially those with disabilities,” Atchison said. “Students know what they can do. They know their own strengths and abilities. The best thing that we can do as instructors and program developers is to give them options.”

“This whole thing has required people to really look at the core components of fieldwork: why we do what we do and how we can do that in other ways. To me, those are lessons that can’t be unlearned very easily,” Marshall said. “And especially for students who have visible evidence now of what can be done, it’s going to be hard to ignore this year and pretend it didn’t happen.

—Richard J. Sima (@richardsima), Science Writer

Citation: Sima, R. J. (2020), Accessibility and fieldwork in the time of coronavirus, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO147056. Published on 23 July 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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