Newswise — Whitewater rafting down a river, trekking through the jungle, spotting wildlife in its natural habitat. While field studies courses offer students these kinds of adventurous experiences, they also give students a taste of life working in the field and hands-on learning that ensures they are job-ready for a career in research.

Learn more about some of the CSU’s field experiences.



“Immersive courses are really impactful not only for learning, but also for changing people's lives in terms of how they see the world, where they go in their future trajectory, opening their mind to new experiences and not being afraid.” – Dr. Alison O’Dowd

Several years ago, Alison O'Dowd, Ph.D., Cal Poly Humboldt professor of Environmental Science and Management, and her master's student conducted research around the Klamath River Watershed. Since then, that experience has grown into a full field course, which ran its first session in summer 2022 for 14 students.

“The Klamath is such a great outdoor classroom because there's so much going on in terms of restoration, interdisciplinary partnerships, science and monitoring," Dr. O'Dowd says.

Following two days of orientation on campus, the group embarked on 12 days of car camping around the basin with an academic focus on restoration, especially as several dams are in the process of being removed from the region. As they moved along their route, the group met with research practitioners, engineers, nonprofits and tribal representatives leading different restoration projects.

For example, the group went snorkeling with the Salmon River Restoration Council, learned about off-channel pond restoration with the Karuk Tribe, whitewater rafted to explore river channel features and hiked to 7,000 feet in elevation on Mount Eddy. In addition, each student was assigned two species to become the resident expert on, so when it was encountered in the field, the student could practice acting as a natural historian.

“The work you do in the Klamath is hands-on," O'Dowd says. “You're getting wet, you're getting dirty, you're really experiencing it. Every day, students were in the work and not just sitting back and listening. … They felt like they got more out of a two-week course than they did in a lot of their semester-long courses because it was so immersive [and they were] living and breathing that information."

Not only were students learning the material, they were also making meaningful connections with individuals and organizations working in the field who could offer future internships or jobs.

“I've found it helps students get that first job or second job after graduation and helps them get over the hump in terms of putting themselves out there and going in the direction that they want to with their career," O'Dowd says. “We hope they get out of the experience a renewed confidence in themselves and their ability to apply for these different positions, and to see themselves as biologists, as restoration workers, as fisheries experts or whatever their discipline is."

Participating students earned class credits through the field course and were able to get their tuition covered through Cal Poly Humboldt's program to provide free summer courses last year. The course will run again in summer 2023, and O'Dowd plans to offer a few scholarships and will encourage students to also seek out funding opportunities to cover the costs.



“[The field experience] helped students think through what's next for them and gave them the experience to move forward to the next step in their careers.” – Dr. Erin Riley

With a focus on human-primate conflict and biodiversity conservation, the 2022 Indonesia Fieldwork Experience took three students with SDSU Anthropology Professor Erin Riley, Ph.D., to eight sites across two islands, including to Dr. Riley's research site in Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park. The students learned about field research methods, attended seminars and workshops, and interacted with local communities.

“Some of the lessons and experiences students gain by doing field work—especially being in an international setting and outside of a normal routine—challenges them on so many different levels, in terms of travel, organizing one's things to bring, and troubleshooting," Riley says. “How do you engage and network with people from that country, and if you don't speak the language, how do you navigate that? If you do, how do you navigate your position as a foreigner? These are all skills that are so crucial in the contemporary era, and … field work, particularly in an international setting, helps prepare students for that."

As part of the program, the SDSU students worked with Indonesian students to develop a digital conservation education outreach tool. Together, they completed an education-related workshop during the three-week trip before splitting into groups to determine how best to communicate the importance of primate conservation to the public. The resulting projects, completed in the fall semester, were an infographic on how to properly observe primates, a video on the harms of keeping primates as pets, and a children's storybook about a monkey experiencing the effects of climate change on her environment.

“I think that was a great project to help the students focus on what they learned during the trip and think about how to communicate science to the public," Riley says. “Working with Indonesian students [built] teamwork skills as well."

While Riley has been working in Indonesia for more than 20 years and has previously taken master's students with her, last year was the first time she ran a formal program open to undergraduate students thanks to funding from the ASIANetwork Student-Faculty Fellows Program.​

With a National Science Foundation grant covering the next three years, Riley will offer a six-week, research-intensive program with stipends, focused on human-primate coexistence and ecosystem health. The program will be open to both graduate and undergraduate students, allowing the latter to be mentored by students further along in their education. Riley hopes participants will also be able to disseminate their research through conference presentations and journal articles.

“Getting students involved in research early in their undergraduate careers, with mentorship from both faculty and graduate student peers, will better prepare them for future research endeavors," she says. “It will also increase the likelihood that they will pursue graduate-level training." Riley adds that this is particularly important for students from underrepresented groups, and the stipends will allow more students the opportunity to gain this hands-on experience.



“It's not about the information, it’s about the experience. It's about taking students out of the classroom and off the campus and putting them someplace new where the topic of study and the method of study are completely adapted and embedded in the place where it belongs.” – Dr. Dan Reineman

Through its Santa Rosa Island Research Station (SRIRS)—established through a partnership with Channel Islands National Park—CSU Channel Islands provided two opportunities​ in summer 2022 for students to spend several weeks at the field station and experience hands-on learning on the island.

“A lot of our students are from traditionally underserved communities and are first-generation college students—and being able to spend time doing education and research in a national park on an offshore island is not necessarily in the cards for them," SRIRS Director Russell Bradley says. “We offer a variety of programs for them, but one element that we wanted to add with this program is the intensive field course. It's another level of opportunity for education, career preparation and research experience."

First, the interdisciplinary field studies program taught field methods and research in topics spanning environmental science to cultural history through lectures, field activities and hikes.

“It was the opportunity to travel and work in settings where there are remote field stations and where science is happening in a wet, muddy, hands-on way that was transformational for my career—and the opportunity to provide those experiences for our students in Channel Islands National Park is an enormous privilege," says Dan Reineman, Ph.D., assistant professor of Environmental Science and Resource Management, who helped lead the interdisciplinary session. “To live and work in the park, and learn research methods in biology, anthropology, ecology and resource management, over the course of weeks is an incredible opportunity for our student population."

One such field activity included observing a location on the island at the beginning of the trip and then again at the end to show how the students' new skills helped them perform more in-depth observations.

“It was wonderful to look at the growth they could demonstrate in such a short time," Dr. Reineman says. “They acquired the skills to look differently at a place that they'd come to know by learning about the place, the species, the geological processes and the deep enriched history. It's a different lens through which to interpret, understand and appreciate the world."

The second program was a biology-focused field studies course concentrated on learning field methods in marine and terrestrial ecology, designing scientific questions and conducting research. Participating students developed their own primary research projects on the island and worked in groups to collect data, conduct experiments and analyze the data.

“This was really intensive, and the tests didn't always work," says Geoffrey Dilly, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and one of the program leaders. “The failure was part of the point, because the students got to see from the hypothesis testing and the methods building how a project actually comes to fruition."

The 2022 programs were supported by private funding and allowed students to earn class credit. SRIRS will resume intensive summer field courses in 2024 and continues offering its other, short-term programs.


Learn more about resear​ch at the CSU.