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It’s time for universities to rethink what counts as field school

By Liam Zachary

Field school season is approaching for anthropology and earth science undergraduate students, and while some students have already enrolled in an exciting field school program, many are still scrambling to find a spot, and even more students are priced out of the experience altogether.

Field schools in archaeology, geology, palaeontology, and other fields of anthropology and earth science were initially envisioned to complement classroom and lab-based undergraduate science instruction, but today field school is a luxury for students. As the cost of undergraduate education continues to rise, especially in the United States, it has become more difficult for some students to justify attending field school instead of taking a summer job or paid internship. I believe universities need to do more to support student field training, which has tremendous benefits for the professional and academic development of students. Many undergraduate students share my experience of first connecting with a subject of passion while working in the field, which can shape the trajectory for future research careers.

My field school experience

My first experience with archaeological field work was during an internship at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus during my senior year in 2013. We excavated a portion of the Cowell Limeworks on weekends for 10 weeks. The limeworks was in use during the 19th and early 20th century.

Though my field work experience began in essentially UCSC’s own backyard, my field work experiences have taken me around the world. After graduating from UCSC, I attended Zamartze Mortuary Archaeology field school in Navarra, Spain. We excavated burials from a medieval church cemetery for three weeks. In 2014, during my MSc I excavated a medieval hospital cemetery and a Merovingian settlement in the Netherlands. Working at these archaeological sites catalyzed my interest in bioarchaeology, the study of human remains from archaeology sites. Beforehand, I was unsure what I wanted to specialize in within archaeology. Field school reinforced my interest in bioarchaeology, and today, I am pursuing a PhD in the subject.

Why is field school important?

My professors reiterated that field school is the most important experience for an archaeology undergraduate student, but the coursework at universities does not reflect this sentiment. In field schools, students receive practical training in their discipline, and also meet students from other universities who are also passionate about the subject. Field schools enable students to develop practical skills, such as archaeological excavation or geologic survey, which cannot be learned in the classroom. Finally, field schools connect undergraduate students with early career scientists and senior faculty for mentorship. I would suggest students looking for a traditional academic field school experience visit the Institute for Field Research (IFR) ]. IFR also offers two types of field school scholarships, one that is merit based and one that is based on financial need.

Field schools have many benefits, but are also prohibitively expensive. University field schools can cost more than US$3000, which equates to more than a semester of tuition at some state colleges in the United States.

The public university system was designed to make education affordable and accessible to all students. I am troubled that field schools are not integrated in the public higher education system, when so many professionals identify fieldwork training as critical to success. Many students receive significant financial aid to attend university, but Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will not fund summer field schools. The lack of financial aid means the field school system is only accessible to students who can afford to pay the fees out-of-pocket, limiting the experience to students who can afford the fees. Consequently, students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to pursue an education in science disciplines where field training is crucial. Until universities make field schools part of the curriculum in anthropology and earth sciences, many bright students will be discouraged from pursuing this discipline.

Fortunately, there are affordable alternatives to university-organized field schools, but they are not well publicized to students.

Passport in Time (PIT): An alternative to field school

Passport in Time (PIT) is a volunteer archaeology and historic preservation program of the United States Forest Service. Volunteers work with Forest Service archaeologists and historians on projects in National Forests nationwide. PIT projects are free for volunteers and housing (usually camping) is provided. Today, there are two exciting PIT projects with openings for students, the Hudson-Meng Bison Bone Bed Interpretation Project and a dinosaur fossil project in South Dakota.

There are three overlapping sessions from June to September 2015, with three openings per session, in the Hudson-Meng Project. The Hudson-Meng Education and Research Center (HMEC) is open to the public, and hosts university field schools during the summer months. HMEC is looking for PIT volunteers to work during the summer field season to educate the general public about a variety of topics relating to the site, and volunteers are tasked with designing interactive materials for the general public on these topics. The volunteers will also help to develop education materials about Hudson-Meng for local public K-12 schools. If you are interested you can apply on the project page on the PIT website. The project can sponsor undergraduate or graduate students who would like to earn academic credits by completing an independent internship.

Another PIT project with openings is a dinosaur fossil-hunting project on the Nebraska National Forest in South Dakota. The project is searching for more fossils Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs in a Late Cretaceous sea bed. PIT volunteers along with the Forest Service will help with surface survey and limited excavation led by a graduate student. Volunteers will also receive training on how to document finds. The project starts the week of July 13, and applications for one of the 15 spots are due by June 8 2015.

Though PIT offers great programs for students, there are not enough projects to shore up the need for additional financial support for students to attend field schools. Therefore, it is imperative that universities make field schools more affordable and accessible by incorporating them into the curriculum.

Student Resources Listed in Post
Institute for Field Research:
Passport in Time:

Larsen, CS 2000. A view on science: physical anthropology at the millennium. Am J Phys Anthropol 111:1–4.

Featured image: Excavation of Roman villa. Photo courtesy of Capture the Uncapturable on Flickr.

  1. I gave IFR (Institute for Field School
    Research) a $500 deposit for the Dhiban, Jordan dig. I found them
    through the Biblical Archaeology website. It was my understanding that
    they offer assistance to offset the cost of their incredibly expensive

    I applied to 5 scholarships, which I did not receive, not one! As a
    result, I could not afford to go, because I will begin Grad School in
    Archaeology this Fall. There was no way to afford both simultaneously.
    IFR made numerous claims that they affordable and help students. All
    but me. They absolutely refuse to refund my $500. Please help!
    Thanking you,

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