Cognitive and Social Benefits Among Underrepresented First-Year Biology Students in a Field Course: A Case Study of Experiential Learning in the Galápagos

  • Nicholas A. Mason Cornell University
  • Rebecca M. Brunner Cornell University
  • Cissy J. Ballen University of Minnesota
  • Irby J. Lovette Cornell University
Keywords: Experiential learning, Field course, First-year, Undergraduate, Underrepresented, Study abroad, Education abroad


Student attrition is a persistent challenge in the life sciences, particularly among underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, and women. Experiential learning through short-term study abroad opportunities diversify curricula by immersing students into non-traditional academic environments. However, most experiential learning and study abroad opportunities are primarily available to upper-division undergraduates. Here, we present a qualitative analysis of an experiential learning opportunity offered exclusively to first-year U.S. undergraduate students from underrepresented demographics. We performed ethnographic observations of a 10-day field component in the Galápagos Islands, and analyzed self-reported survey results and field journals. Students consistently reported strong cognitive gains in their understanding of basic evolutionary concepts. Most students also benefited socially, although we observed higher variation in self-reported social gains. Our findings suggest that immersive field courses may increase scientific literacy and retention of underrepresented students by engaging them in experience-driven learning.


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Author Biographies

Nicholas A. Mason, Cornell University

Nicholas Mason is a PhD student at Cornell University, where he studies the ecology and evolutionary biology of birds. Nicholas is also interested in classroom and campus-wide initiatives to improve diversity and student retention in biology, particularly through experiential learning and immersive study abroad opportunities that focus on natural history and organismal biology. Nicholas has participated in field courses as a student or an instructor in Costa Rica, Florida, Panama, Kenya, and the Galapagos Archipelago.

Rebecca M. Brunner, Cornell University

Rebecca Brunner is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Becca researches tropical ecology and conservation. Becca is passionate about dynamic, curiosity-driven learning environments and their ability to integrate traditionally separate disciplines. While at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Becca served as the developmental editor for The Handbook of Bird Biology (3rdEdition) textbook and co-created, as well as taught, an undergraduate curriculum with a field component in the Galápagos. Becca is actively involved in initiatives to increase diversity in STEM, both in the US and abroad.

Cissy J. Ballen, University of Minnesota

Cissy Ballen is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota. Her work centers on the role of teaching strategies in improving the quality of science education, with an emphasis on historically underrepresented demographics. She grew to appreciate the importance of student immersion in field courses while serving as an instructor on courses that took undergraduates to Australia, Norway, and the Isles of Shoals off of the coast of New Hampshire.

Irby J. Lovette, Cornell University

Irby Lovette holds the Fuller Professor Chair in Ornithology at Cornell University, where he has a joint appointment in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His research on the evolutionary biology of birds is complemented by his teaching of active-learning style undergraduate biology courses with large enrollments, topical graduate seminars, and two annual undergraduate field courses in places such as Panama, Kenya, Ecuador, and Argentina.


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How to Cite
Mason, N. A., Brunner, R. M., Ballen, C. J., & Lovette, I. J. (2018). Cognitive and Social Benefits Among Underrepresented First-Year Biology Students in a Field Course: A Case Study of Experiential Learning in the Galápagos. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 30(3), 1-19.