June 29, 2012

Field Notes for an Undergraduate of Ecology

I just finished reading Field Notes on Science and Nature edited by Michael R. Canfield. It is a wonderful compilation of articles written by various authors about field journaling. The field journal refers to the notebook used to record observations and research data. Traditionally, field journals were used by the great explores and naturalists of the world to record their findings and later make discoveries such as the theory of evolution by natural selection. More recently, ecology has begun to focus much more on the experimental approach, straying away from pure observation. The modern field journal has become the data sheet or Excel file. Reading this book was a great awakening to the need of returning to the dedicated use of a field journal.

But most of the book's authors were professionals--professors, researchers, consultants, etc. Although some of the authors used stories from their graduate school experiences, few if any mentioned journaling during their undergraduate tenure. I started thinking about this and realized: How can I benefit from the values of field journaling as a student in my life as an undergraduate? Now a graduate student, I can see the applicability of field journaling given the inherent nature of my thesis. But as an undergraduate, or even a high school student, how could have I benefited from journals? The following is a journal system that I suggest for the aspiring undergraduate ecologist. It consists of two formal journals and one "field" notebook.

The Notebook
  • Use a small "field" notebook for your rough class notes. Ideally something handy and durable that you can access easily. Liken this notebook to your short term memory. It only has to be neat enough to help you transcribe and expand on your entries in the following journals. It would probably be a good habit to do this transcribing at the end of each day. The exact contents of this notebook will be more evident as you continue reading below, but essentially anything is fair game in this notebook.

Course Journal (the What)
  • Use your Course Journal to transcribe your notes clearly, so that you can easily refer back to them, and in a way that makes rereading the material enjoyable. Use color, use mindmaps, use drawings, do whatever it takes. You can do external research for this section to fill in elements you didn't understand or missed in class. You can also use this journal to directly summarize your understanding of papers/articles you read for class assigments. This journal is both a way to reinforce what you've learned and a way to generate your own "textbook"--one written in your own words. This is a place where you can create your own field guides to help with your pursuit of natural history. While taking an ornithology class, for example, you might use field guides to generate a list of the common birds of your region.

Reflection Journal (the How and Why)
  • The Reflection Journal is where you keep track of your educational experience. What are you learning? What do you understand? What don't you understand or is giving you a hard time? What do you want to pursue next? Having kept a journal similar to this, I was pleasantly surprised to find how useful it was. It helped me come to terms with and understand what I actually want to pursue in the natural sciences, as well as the best learning avenues to take. This journal is a way to reflect on yourself, giving a space to reevaluate where you are going with your education. It is a useful place to track your progress as you learn a new subject--very encouraging when the subject seems really hard. You can also journal the connections between what you are learning and your actual natural history observations. There is nothing that helps me learn more than being able to connect what I am learning directly to what I see in the natural world. Doing this helps me remember (with great satisfaction) why I am doing ecology in the first place. Although as your knowledge of natural history grows you will likely delve into journals dedicated strictly to objective observations of natural history, this reflection journal will still be a great place to bring together your understanding of the literature and your observations.

The Course and Reflection journals are similar to the two questions I describe in my article on the "Ultimate Human Ecology". The Course journal describes the What--what are you learning? The Relfection journal describes the How and Why--How are you learning, and why are you doing it? Coming to terms with the "why" has been one of the most important aspects of my undergraduate education. As soon as I knew the "why" I had something to shoot for and a solid foundation from which to push myself, helping me stay motivated when things weren't always so fun. The bottom line is that the this student journal system is designed with the intention to help you learn.

Of course, it would probably entail some extra work to sustain this journaling system, but perhaps it will pay off in the long term by helping you get more out of classes that interest you, and not having to study as much before exams. Perhaps a good compromise is to use this journal system on only the most applicable classes--the ones you are willing to put the extra effort in to get the most out of. And, of course the system is only a suggestion. I never in the past put this wholy into practice, but perhaps elements of it will inspire you. Take whatever you may from it, and remember to have fun.

So now, as a begining graduate student in plant ecology I hope to implement some of this journaling into my own daily routine. Getting into a routine is hard until you do it and then it's, well, just a routine. It also helps to have a friend you can commit with, supporting and encouraging each other to keep going. Good luck journaling!

Please feel free to comment on your experiences/ideas related to journaling as an undergraduate. I'd enjoy expanding this discussion with others.

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