Teaching Outdoors! Field Laboratories

This semester I volunteered to be a Teaching Assistant for a 400 level course in the Natural Resource Ecology and Management department, my home department here at Iowa State University. I absolutely love teaching, and it had been too many semesters since I had had the opportunity to TA. I am fully funded as a research associate and thus do not NEED to teach, but I WANT to, so I volunteered!

What I find really exciting about my home department is that many of our labs are OUTDOORS! Given that we study the environment, ecosystem management, animal ecology, and the interconnections between these disciplines, our laboratory is the outdoors. The best way for our students to learn is to actually go outside and see first hand the ecological and environmental concepts they are learning about in the classroom.

Not only does this really enhance student learning, but it’s a lot of fun!


The course is called Watershed Management and it focuses on managing human impacts on the hydrologic cycle. Throughout the course students learn about the hydrologic cycle in its natural form, and how human development affects water quality, quantity, and timing, as well as how those alterations impact surrounding ecosystems.

For this first outdoor lab we went to a lovely little woods nearby campus that has a walking trail known as Peggy’s Trial. This forested landscape features gently rolling hills, some degrading small creeks, a stream with a lovely terrace structure, and some very straightforward examples of human landscape alterations.

Being January, it was pretty cold and windy outside. However, being the outdoorsy NREM department, we head out regardless of “snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night…”ok maybe we don’t go out at night, I guess the US Postal Service beats us there. But, it takes some pretty extreme weather to cancel an NREM field lab and below freezing temperature definitely don’t count!

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Being early in the semester this lab really focused on getting the students out and looking at the landscape and its features, and connecting human activities to landscape alterations.

For example, this particular woodland is the drainage area for a large research complex. Said research complex comes equipped with large buildings, very large parking lots, and lots of turf grass. Urbanization at its best…

All of those hard, impervious surfaces means that when it rains, instead of the rain soaking into the ground like it used to, that rainwater has no where to go and instead runs over the surface of the landscape and into local streams.

Native streams did not develop under present day conditions. They developed in a system where rainwater soaked into the ground. Not one where streams get inundated every times to rains. Today, our streams and rivers often cannot support all the runoff that modern, urbanized catchements create.

As a result, we get A LOT of erosion.

We talk about stream erosion and the impacts of increased impervious surface area a lot in class, but there’s something about being able to walk down into a stream and see 8-foot tall collapsing banks and exposed roots of entire trees to really drive the point home.

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At one point in the afternoon, we came across this um…can you still call that a drain?

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When the professor asked the students “What do you see here?” one student had the perfect response:

“An example of human error.”

Human error indeed. Humans came in, radically altered a landscape (that sprawling research complex I mentioned earlier), and didn’t fully anticipate the effects that would have on the surrounding landscape. They put in a ‘drain’ in the hopes that the runoff would quickly and easily make it to the stream.

Out of sight, out of mind.

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But they underestimated how much runoff there would be, and massively undersized the drain. Rain events got worse. Even more buildings were built…and you get what you see here. Massive erosion, a complete failure of the drain, and a subsequent collapse of the stream banks at the drain location and for miles downstream.

And what happens to all that eroded soil? All of that eroded sediment ends up in our rivers and lakes.

This leads to more flooding as rivers fill up with sediment and can’t hold as much water; it leads to habitat loss and freshwater ecosystem degradation; it leads to higher water treatment costs as water treatment plants have to deal with the additional sediment and its associated nutrient loads; and it fills in our lakes and reservoirs, limiting their capacity and necessitating costly dredging projects every few decades.


Human have significant and negative impacts on the environment. This course teaches students about those impacts and there really is no better way to learn that than to be outside, walking the landscape for themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Outdoors! Field Laboratories

  1. Pingback: The Watershed in Winter! Teaching Outdoors – SciNatura

  2. Thanks for your article. I also believe laptop computers have gotten more and more popular right now, and now will often be the only kind of computer employed in a household. This is due to the fact that at the same time that they’re becoming more and more affordable, their computing power keeps growing to the point where they are as powerful as desktop through just a few years ago.

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