Who belongs in the outdoors doing fieldwork?

Target Learners

Fieldwork. By Alison Jolley/Frontiers Abroad. CC By 4.0.

This case study was created primarily for those who are involved in teaching in higher education (e.g., faculty, instructors, TAs) for their professional development purposes. However, it could also be used in other instructional settings with or without modifications.

Learning Objectives

Through this case study activity, participants will be able to:

  1. Identify key concerns around inclusion and equity in the case scenario
  2. Develop strategies for more inclusive and equitable practices

Instructions for main facilitator:

Ahead of the workshop

  1. Review the case study scenario and adapt it to your context if necessary.
  2. Review the talking points, which are suggested points for discussions. You may want to adapt the talking points (e.g., modify the language, make additional points) to your specific context.
  3. Consider how you would like to facilitate the activity by thinking of the following questions:
    • Would you like to identify people who are going to facilitate small group discussions ahead of time so that you have a chance to discuss key points to be covered in the small group discussions? Or will the session participant work on their own in small groups?
    • Will someone be taking notes during small group discussions? How can these be recorded and shared with the whole group?
    • Would you like to have participants read the case study and discussion questions ahead of time as “homework,” or do you have enough time to do that during your session?

During the workshop

  1. Divide participants into groups of 4-5. You may want each group to include a facilitator with knowledge of the issues discussed in the scenario, and who can help guide the conversation.
  2. Give groups 10-15 minutes to discuss the scenario. You may want to give each group a large piece of paper where they can write their response to the discussion questions and other additional thoughts.
  3. Debrief as a large group. Each small group shares what they discussed and debrief as a large group.

Instructions for learners:

Read the case study scenario. Take a moment to think about the discussion questions, then discuss with your group.

You teach a first year geology course. A program advisor in your department comes to you with a concern that was brought up by a female student in your course. According to the program advisor, the student is really enjoying the course and has decided she wants to major in geology. However, she doesn’t feel that she “belongs” in the discipline. The program advisor elaborates by saying that the student doesn’t connect with the images that are routinely shown in class. The student says that almost every image shown of geologists doing scientific work consists of seemingly able-bodied, bearded men standing on the peaks of rugged mountain ranges. She hears stories of instructors spending their summers hiking in remote regions, carrying bags full of heavy rock samples up and down steep cliffs. Although the student’s issues with accessibility are not overtly visible, she told the program advisor that she has severe joint issues and cannot walk without pain even on flat ground for more than a few hours at a time. Exasperated, the student told the program advisor that she is just going to major in something else, because there’s no way she can be a geologist.

  1. From your lens as an instructor, what are the issues highlighted in this scenario?  
  2. As an instructor, how would you respond to the situation? What could have been done differently to support the students in this scenario? Consider these questions at both the local level (e.g., what you can do in the short term for your teaching and department) and at a broader level (e.g., long-term, structural changes across your university, wider disciplinary community or professional societies).

These talking points are meant to help the facilitator generate meaningful conversation with the group. There are not final or comprehensive answers.

Recognizing and acting upon unconscious bias

It is possible that the repeated portrayal of geologists in fieldwork being “seemingly able-bodied, bearded men” is, to some degree, a product of what is called “unconscious bias” – associations and assumptions that we make about people outside our awareness or consciousness. Those biases are either positive or negative and often shaped by the direct and indirect messaging that we have received through, for example, stereotypes communicated in media and who is over-represented or underrepresented in a certain field of study or profession. We all have unconscious biases regardless of how fair minded we believe we are, and we may not be able to completely remove our unconscious biases. However, it is important to remember that our subtle messaging that we are not even aware of can negatively affect student learning. For example, the student in this case scenario interpreted your messaging as saying that she did not belong in the discipline. Studies show that students’ sense of belonging has a strong relationship with their interest and persistence in the field of study (For example, see Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Tellhed, Bäckström, & Björklund, 2017).

  • How can we identify our own unconscious biases?
  • What actions can you take to counteract your unconscious biases and make your communications and teaching practice more inclusive?
  • How might you have listened to and supported the student if she had come to you with her concerns directly?

Reality of the discipline and advocacy

The images and stories that the student’s instructors shared in classrooms may be, to some degree, a reflection of the current reality of the discipline – i.e., underrepresentation of women, people with disabilities, and other minority groups. She may not have wanted to point out the subtle stereotype reinforcement that she felt you were perpetuating.

  • How might you establish a classroom environment that promotes a sense of belonging for all students?
  • How might you be able to make change in your classroom, department, or discipline so that the onus is not put on underrepresented or marginalized students to self-advocate?
  • What kinds of resources or leverage points might you consider reaching out to in your networks - within the university, your academic associations, etc. – to advocate for change?
  • How could you support your own students getting involved in this advocacy?

Understanding the role of ‘invisible’ disabilities

It is worth being aware that many disabilities are not immediately apparent. Furthermore, the student may not wish to disclose her disability to her peers or even you as her instructor.

  • How might the student be supported whilst still protecting her right to self-disclose?
  • What are some of the proactive strategies you may be able to take to create a more supportive environment for students with invisible, as well as visible, disabilities so that they do not always have to self-disclose and request accommodations?  


To consider how the complex identities of both the student and yourself might have shaped the way this scenario was experienced, the concept of intersectionality can be helpful. Intersectionality is a concept developed by a legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her speech, Crenshaw emphasizes that intersectionality is not primarily about how many intersections there are in your identities. She continues to explain: “[Intersectionality] is about how structures make certain identities the consequence of and the vehicle for vulnerability. So, if you want to know how many intersections matter, you’ve got to look at the context. What’s happening? What kind of discrimination is going on?  What are the policies? What are the institutional structures that play a role in contributing to the exclusion of some people and not others?” In this case scenario, the student may feel marginalized as a result of multiple structures of oppression imposed on her in geology as a discipline and/or in her university as an institution. Power systems of ableism and sexism are likely to be particularly important here, but all aspects of a person’s identity influence their lived experiences.

  • How might you reflect on your intersectionality and experiences within your discipline?
  • How can you create a classroom environment that values the contributions of all voices?
  • How can you provide space (inside and outside of the classroom) for everyone involved to share their own perspectives?

Protecting student privacy and identity

Remember, the program advisor has provided you with the gender of the student and the nature of her disability in confidence.

  • How might you address this concern in the classroom without making the student feel embarrassed or that their confidence has been betrayed?
  • Should you address the concern directly, or more indirectly?
  • Does hearing this concern impact any other aspects of your teaching practice?
  • What might you change in your classroom practice to make students feel more comfortable with approaching you directly to address their concerns and needs?

Thank you to Dr. Chris Atchison (University of Cincinnati, the International Association for Geoscience Diversity) for comments on an early version of this case study.

Some rights reserved Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document according to the terms in Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. The full text of this license may be found here: CC by-nc-sa 4.0 By-nc-sa-small-transparent.png

When re-using this resource, please attribute as follows: developed by Alison Jolley (Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences) and Hanae Tsukada (Equity & Inclusion Office) at the University of British Columbia.

source: https://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Title:_Who_belongs_in_the_outdoors_doing_fieldwork?

Post image:  By Alison Jolley/Frontiers Abroad. CC BY 4.0