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Learning Geography Through Fieldwork

24 Apr 2013

tasting rocks

If calcium carbonate is present in the rock, tasting it will leave a dry, chalky feel on one's tongue. This was a tip given by the earth scientists from the Earth Observatory of Singapore. Photo Contribution: Miss Low Siew Peng

"Field trips reinforce what students learn in the classroom and help them develop a love for the subject," said Miss Low Siew Peng, a senior teacher who teaches geography at Unity Secondary School.

In the new geography syllabus that was implemented in 2013, field studies became compulsory for Secondary Three students, and will apply to lower secondary students from 2014. Previously, teachers had the option of using field studies as one of the strategies for learning geography, as research had shown that field trips has a positive impact on long-term memory.

"The move to have fieldwork in our curriculum challenges teachers to become learners first," said Mdm Viyaya Rani, Master Teacher (Geography) at the Academy of Singapore Teachers.

Miss Low and Mdm Rani

Mdm Viyaya Rani (left) and Miss Low Siew Peng (right) conducted a seminar during the ExCEL Fest 2013 to share about their fieldtrip to Mount Merapi in Indonesia.

To learn more about fieldwork, Mdm Rani and Miss Low embarked on a field trip to Mount Merapi in Indonesia, conducted by the Earth Observatory of Singapore. From the experience, they customised a field trip that would cater to students and shared about the inquiry process required with other geography teachers at a seminar during the MOE ExCEL Fest 2013, held on 5 and 6 April this year.

"I went for the field trip because Mt Merapi is an exciting venue covered in our syllabus, and the experts from the Earth Observatory of Singapore were there to provide explanations!" said Miss Low.

Three Phases of Fieldwork

Every field trip involves preparation, on-site observation and debriefing. Although logistical planning requires much of a teacher's time and attention, the emphasis is on the learning outcomes.

Observing the rock

Participants were asked to describe the rock sample that was taken from Mount Merapi, before attempting to identify the rock.

Hands-on activities such as observing rocks, identifying the route using Google maps, reading secondary sources and getting to know the group and facilitators are all part of the preparation process. This helps students to know what to expect and encourages discussion and interaction during the trip.

"What colour is it? Is the texture rough or smooth?" asked Miss Low during the seminar, as participants observed a rock sample from Mount Merapi.

One of the most important things that Miss Low and Mdm Rani learnt about on-site observations was to always describe and study the data first, instead of jumping straight to an assumption. For example, by observing the burnt trees on the lower slopes, they were able to determine the distance covered by the pyroclastic flow, which is a fast moving current of hot gas and rock resulting from a volcanic eruption.

Answers could also be derived by comparing primary and secondary data. At the Piyungan region, they encountered a sloping wall which was moving inland. By referring to the topographic map, they discovered that it was part of the Sunda megathrust, a fault that starts from Myanmar, extends through Indonesia and ends near Australia.

Observation on Mt Merapi

Observation and description were emphasised during the fieldtrip. Photo Contribution: Miss Low Siew Peng

"The earth scientists kept asking questions to spur our thinking, and eventually, the answers came from us," said Mdm Rani.

As the team visited the villages affected by the volcano eruption in 2010, they had the opportunity to speak to the local people and officials. They found out about the perspective of the locals, evacuation procedures being implemented and the advancement of technology by local scientists that helps them to cope with such natural occurrences. The area is also equipped with an observatory, museum and hazard map, which the team visited and studied.

"Mount Merapi is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes today. We often assume that less developed countries are ill-equipped, but that is not always true," said Mdm Rani.

Damaged villages on Mt Merapi

Miss Low and Mdm Rani had the opportunity to see the damage of Mount Merapi's volcanic eruption in 2010. Photo Contribution: Miss Low Siew Peng

Upon their return to Singapore, the field trip participants worked in groups to produce resources such as a fact sheet, a starter guide with logistic recommendations and guiding questions for students, so that other teachers could utilise these resources to prepare for such trips.

Benefits of Field Trips

"I went on the field trip as a learner, so I can better design field learning activities that will guide my students in their learning" said Mdm Rani, as she explained the value of field trips for teachers.

For a student, fieldwork helps to match what is learnt in the textbook with reality. Living in Singapore where the natural landscape has been largely urbanised, it is sometimes difficult to understand the geographical concepts until we encounter them face to face.

"We thought we would see a crack where the fault line was, like in a topographic map. But in reality, it was a fault zone - a huge plain with two uplifted land masses on the sides," said Miss Low.

Team on Mt Merapi

Upon returning to Singapore, the team consolidated their learning and put together a guide for other teachers. Photo Contribution: Miss Low Siew Peng

As global citizens, understanding the environment and how humans have adapted to it widens our perspective beyond the island we live in and enriches our cultural understanding.

"After the experience, I really respect the people who live on Mount Merapi for their resilience and adaptability under adverse circumstances," said Mdm Rani.

* Teachers can also participate in field trips conducted by experts through the The Geography Chapter, Academy of Singapore Teachers.