Remote Learning: Taking the Advanced Field Sessions Online

When the University of Minnesota closed campuses and research facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Department of Forest Resources faculty, staff, and students had to adapt. In less than a week, our faculty put together a plan for finishing the Spring semester using online instruction—a process Dr. Charlie Blinn described as “It feels like I’m building a plane while I’m flying it.” As we were executing our teaching plan for spring, we turned our eyes toward the summer field sessions and realized we had a tough question to answer. How are we going to do the advanced field sessions if we can’t go out into the field?

The Advanced Field Session is an intensive, two-week experience where students learn field techniques such as resource survey, silviculture, timber harvesting, and forest road development. It provides students with the opportunity to apply these concepts to forest management in the context of a working forest laboratory at the Cloquet Forestry Center. For most of our students, it is one of the brightest highlights of their undergraduate education and a foundation for starting their career. In fact, several of our students had job offers specifically contingent on their participation in these sessions. As we detailed in previous issues, we restructured our field sessions to be part of Spring and Fall semesters to give students the opportunity to save money by taking advantage of the University’s free after 13 credits tuition structure.

Despite the unprecedented circumstances, we could not in good conscious reschedule the Advanced Field Session, as that would have delayed several students from graduating. We had to make it work, and not just that, we had to make sure the classes provided the same kind of educational value our in-person sessions have in the past. Everyone was a little nervous at first, given the high stakes and tight turnaround.

Students in a forest with an instructor

Field session students learn silvicultural practices with St. Louis County foresters in 2018

“Students recognize the challenge, and they’ve overcome the initial anxiety over not being able to get all of the skills they expected. They’re relieved that we’re having the sessions, but they’re definitely disappointed they can’t be in the field. There is no way around that aspect. They’ve been looking forward to this.” – Dr. Charlie Blinn

“The big question in front of us is how can we create those in-the-field experiences remotely without repeating work they’ve already had in their classes. When you’re not in the field, it’s hard to correct students in context and show them in real-time how to collect a sample or record data.” – Dr. John Zobel

“We have the last half of the Spring semester to learn what the worst silly bugs are with remote instruction. My class is going to look nothing like normal. I expect the format will be mostly asynchronous where we provide the assignments, students go out and do them, and then we discuss their findings. With the in-person sessions, we are with the students from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. It will be different, but we only get one shot at this.” – Dr. Marcella Windmuller-Campione

Communities come together under difficult circumstances, and our forestry community is no different. Our friends were reaching out to us with kind words of encouragement and questions about how they could help. Two friends, including one alumnus, stepped up to demonstrate and document the process of appraising a timber stand for our students. They strapped on GoPro cameras and, cell phones in hand, separately stepped through their process for inspecting and appraising a timber stand, including pre- and post-work in their office as well as in-woods. How many plots are needed? Where should I locate them? What species are present? How many sticks of sawtimber, bolts pulpwood, etc. are in each tree? What’s my total volume within the stand by species and product? And then they put a price on merchantable stand volume so students could see the entire process from start to finish.

“Even after they leave silviculture class, some students still have a hard time envisioning that silviculure means trees being harvested. They respond really well to other aspects of the course, but they struggle with the fact that silviculture is implemented through loggers harvesting trees.” – Dr. Marcella Windmuller-Campione

One of the primary objectives of the field sessions is to show students the interconnected nature of forestry. You can’t have silviculture without timber harvesting, and seeing those two elements in practice highlights the importance of building relationships.

“You need to have a good relationship with your logger. They are the people implementing your plans and prescriptions on the ground and there should be a good level of trust between the two of you.” – Dr. Marcella Windmuller-Campione

It’s important for students to see the integration between collecting data, using that data to develop a plan, and then implementing that plan. However, once we shifted to online instruction and all field trips had to be cancelled, it became impossible to demonstrate this integration working in a field context. To address this problem, faculty coordinated discussion panel sessions featuring six presenters discussing the integration of data into practice and working with private forest landowners. They then asked students to go out into whatever woods they had access to, be it a public park, a backyard, or one of the stands in the silviculture library and record a five-minute video demonstrating their applied integration of resource survey, silviculture, and harvesting.

As we moved from a university campus closure to a full shelter-in-place scenario in Minnesota, our faculty wanted to ensure that students felt comfortable completing their assignments. For some students that meant not feeling comfortable going outside or not having access to a forest site. By using the silviculture library and expanding our working definition of “woods” in the context of the course, students were able to complete assignments virtually. Faculty tailored the assignments to the individual needs of their students, both those with access to some kind of woods and those using completely online tools like Google Earth to tell their story about integration without leaving their home.

2018 field session students at Hartley Nature Center

2018 field session students after setting up plots at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth, MN

“The biggest challenge is to provide some semblance of a field experience. I found a red pine stand locally, and my wife is going to record me on video just walking through the stand and going through my field procedures visually so students have a chance to see what it would have looked like from a demonstration standpoint.” – Dr. John Zobel

The plan is to provide students with data, and a narrated collection process, as if they had collected it themselves. It’s important for students to have a visual reference for the concepts they’re learning, so Dr. Zobel asked Kyle Gill and Lane Johnson at the Cloquet Forestry Center for help. Kyle and Lane stepped up and created a Google Earth project from the Center complete with virtual tours that can give an overview of a stand from the air and zoom-in for a 360 degree spherical photo and video from within the same stands the students would have measured themselves. Students could then evaluate those stands for different purposes and contexts. Adapting to an unexpected change can spur innovations and new thought, and developing these new formats have produced valuable techniques faculty can carry into their classrooms when in-person instruction resumes. The tools faculty developed in these sessions will be used in other upcoming summer and fall field sessions as well as their own classes in the future.

“I’m going to lean more heavily on the Google Earth project this semester, but I also see value in going forward as a reference for students to use as prep work before visiting a stand or as follow-up after they have returned.” – Dr. John Zobel

“Mine is completely different than what it would be in the field. During my field course, I have some planned activities, but really the course is driven by the students.” – Dr. Marcella Windmuller-Campione

Photo of a forest taken from a student's cell phone

2020 advanced field session students recorded field observations on their phones

Dr. Windmuller-Campione focusses her courses on spurring creativity and critical thinking and encourages students to “explore the grey areas of forest management.” In a normal session, much of this exploration would happen spontaneously through class discussions out in the field where students can apply the concepts they’re learning in a professional environment they’re likely to encounter after graduation. Some of those experiences will be difficult or even impossible to replicate virtually, and students will be relying on job and internship experiences to supplement their education and fill in some of the gaps. While there are things that can only be learned in the field, the new virtual and augmented sessions have cracked open new avenues of experimentation for students.

“Students should have endless possibilities of thinking, both creatively and critically while they’re in school. Once they’re in the workplace, they will be following established norms and standards, but while they’re in my classroom, I want them to think in any way possible and try to justify why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s something these new field classes will do. Students can really be creative, even if it might not always be realistic, they can start to expand what could be possible.” – Dr. Marcella Windmuller-Campione

While the most glamorous forestry work happens out in the field in picturesque forests, there is a lot of conceptual work that happens in the office, too. In Dr. Blinn’s class, students are given a seemingly simple task of planning an access road using a plethora of available tools. “You have air photos, soil maps, hydrological data, and more than you can review before you even start,” says Dr. Blinn. Students used these tools to first draft a complete plan for whatever woods they had access to without ever seeing the road location in person beforehand. Once they have planned their road completely, they saw it in the virtual space and evaluated their plans.

“We just want the students to think broadly. When they get their job, there’s an opportunity to bring broad thinking into an organization, and if we haven’t challenged them to think broadly and given them the space to do so, they’ll both be missing out. Be creative. This is a chance to really think how you could do different things if you’ve got that vision.” – Dr. Charlie Blinn

Students have clearly embraced that opportunity to think creatively and push the envelope of what’s possible, even in the virtual space or hypothetical space. Faculty asked students to develop videos to show the integration of collecting data, using that data to develop a plan, and implementing the plan. While students were told that their plan had to start with a goal, they had tremendous leeway in how they approached the rest of the project. They were encouraged to use their imagination when setting their goal, as long as their plan addressed integration across the three areas. If you’re going to imagine a forest stand, why not stretch your imagination a bit and see what happens?

Dr. Blinn: “One student decided that he wanted to manage his stand for hammocks. That was his project goal.”

Editor: “As in the most efficient setup for hammocks?”

Dr. Blinn: “Yeah. You see, trees need to be spaced a certain distance for hammocks, and you don’t want brush underneath them. He did a really great job of carrying this goal all the way through his video and touching all of the specific requirements of hammocks.”

Some students have created forestry podcasts and others have created their own assignments entirely. They are adapting to the unexpected and becoming broader thinkers in their education. Our faculty are providing them the fundamental skills, concepts, and approaches that they will use out in the woods throughout their forestry careers.