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



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.


Download data is not yet available.

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.


Allen-Ramdial SAA, Campbell, AG (2014). Reimagining the Pipeline: Advancing STEM Diversity, Persistence, and Success. Bioscience 64, 612–618.

Airasian PW, Cruikshank KA, Mayer RE, Pintrich PR, Raths J, Wittrock MC, Anderson, LW, Krathwohl DR (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Boston, MA: Addison Wesley Longman.

Bailey G, Han J, Wright D (2011). Religiously expressed fatalism and the perceived need for science and scientific process to empower agency. Int J Sci Soc 2, 55–87.

Ballen CJ, Mason NA (2017). Longitudinal analysis of a diversity support program in biology: a national call for further assessment. Bioscience 67, 367–373.

Barker S, Slingsby D, Tilling S (2002). Teaching biology outside the classroom: is it heading for extinction? A report on biology fieldwork in the 14–19 curriculum. FSC Occasional Publication 72. Preston Montford, Shropshire: Field Studies Council.

Bauer, DF (1972). Constructing confidence sets using rank statistics. J Am Stat Assoc 67, 687–690.

Beasley MA, Fischer MJ (2012). Why they leave: the impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Soc Psychol Educ 15, 427–448.

Bebbington D (2002). Women in science, engineering and technology: A review of the issues. High Educ Quart 56, 360–375.

Bettinger E (2010). To be or not to be: major choices in budding scientists. In American Universities in a Global Market (ed. Charles T. Clotfelter), Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bonwell CC, Eison JA (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHEERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, George Washington University, Washington, DC.

Boyle A, Maguire S, Martin A, Milsom C, Nash R, Rawlinson S, et al (2007). Fieldwork is good: the student perception and the affective domain. J Geo High Educ 31, 299–317.

Burtner J (2005). The use of discriminant analysis to investigate the influence of non‐cognitive factors on engineering school persistence. J Eng Educ 94, 335–338.

Chen X, Soldner M (2013). STEM attrition: College students’ paths into and out of STEM fields. (NCES 2014-001). Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Clark Blickenstaff, J (2006). Women and science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gend Educ 17, 369–386.

Clifford J, Marcus G (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Conover WJ, Johnson ME, Johnson MM (1981). A comparative study of tests for homogeneity of variances, with applications to the outer continental shelf bidding data. Technometrics 23, 351–361.

Dirks C, Cunningham M (2006) Enhancing diversity in science: is teaching science process skills the answer? Cell Biol Educ 5, 218–226.

Dummer TJB, Cook IG, Parker SL, Barrett GA, Hull AP (2008). Promoting and assessing “deep learning” in geography fieldwork: an evaluation of reflective field diaries. J Geo High Educ 32, 459–479.

Easton E, Gilburn A (2012). The field course effect: gains in cognitive learning in undergraduate biology students following a field course. J Biol Educ 46, 29–35.

Eisner T (1982). For love of nature: exploration and discovery at biological field stations. Bioscience 32, 321–326.

Fenske RH, Porter JD, DuBrock CP (2000). Tracking financial aid and persistence of women, minority, and needy students in science, engineering, and mathematics. Res High Educ 41, 67–94.

Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111, 8410–8415.

Griffith AL (2010). Persistence of women and minorities in STEM field majors: Is it the school that matters? Econ Educ Rev 29, 911–922.

Hammersley M, Atkinson P (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. London, England: Routledge.

Herman SG (1986). The Naturalist's Field Journal. Vermilion.

Hunter AB, Laursen SL, Seymour E (2007). Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students' cognitive, personal, and professional development. Sci Educ 91, 36–74.

Kokkelenberg EC, Sinha E (2010). Economics of Education Review. Econ Educ Rev 29, 935–946.

Kolb AY, Kolb DA (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Acad Manag Learn Educ 4, 193–212.

Kolb DA (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Krathwohl DR (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: an overview. Theor Pract 41, 212–218.

Lam PC, Srivatsan T, Doverspike D, Vesalo J, Mawasha PR (2005). A ten year assessment of the pre-engineering program for under-represented, low income and/or first generation college students at the University of Akron. J STEM Educ 6, 4.

Lisowski M, Disinger JF (1991). The Effect of Field-Based Instruction on Student Understandings of Ecological Concepts. J Environ Educ 23, 19–23.

Lock R (2010). Biology fieldwork in schools and colleges in the UK: an analysis of empirical research from 1963 to 2009. J Biol Educ 44, 58–64.

Lopatto D (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. Cell Biol Educ 6, 297–306.

Magntorn O, Helldén G (2005). Student‐teachers' ability to read nature: reflections on their own learning in ecology. Int J Sci Educ 27, 1229–1254.

Marvell A (2008). Student-led presentations in situ: the challenges to presenting on the edge of a volcano. J Geo High Educ 32, 321–335.

Mathison S (1988). Why triangulate? Educ Res 17, 13–17.

Matsui J, Liu R, Kane CM (2003). Evaluating a science diversity program at UC Berkeley: more questions than answers. Cell Biol Educ 2, 117–121.

McGuinness M, Simm D (2005). Going global? Long-haul fieldwork in undergraduate geography. J Geo High Educ 29, 241–253.

McLaughlin J (2005). Classrooms without walls: a banana plantation, the random fallen tree, and a turtle nest. Int Educ 14, 52¬–54.

McLaughlin JS, Johnson DK (2006). Assessing the field course experientiallLearning model: transforming collegiate short-term study abroad experiences into rich learning environments. Frontiers 13, 65–85.

Mead LS (2015). Factors influencing minority student decisions to consider a career in evolutionary biology. Evol Educ Outreach 8:6, 1–11.

Mendez G, Buskirk TD, Lohr S (2008). Factors associated with persistence in science and engineering majors: An exploratory study using classification trees and random forests. J Eng Educ 97, 57–70.

Prokop P, Tuncer G, Kvasničák R (2007). Short-term effects of field programme on students’ knowledge and attitude toward biology: a slovak experience. J Sci Educ Tech 16, 247–255.

Rask K (2010). Attrition in STEM fields at a liberal arts college: The importance of grades and pre-collegiate preferences. Econ Educ Rev 29, 892–900.

Rathburn SL, Weinberg AE (2011). Undergraduate student satisfaction and achievement at the GetWET Observatory: A fluid learning experience at Colorado State University. J Geo Educ 59, 47–55.

Rissler LJ, Duncan SI, Caruso NM (2014). The relative importance of religion and education on university students’ views of evolution in the Deep South and state science standards across the United States, Evol Educ Outreach 7, 1–17.

Russell SH, Hancock MP, McCullough J (2007). The pipeline: benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science 316, 548–549.

Sanders DL (2007). Making public the private life of plants: the contribution of informal learning environments. Int J Sci Educ 29, 1209–1228.

Scott GW, Boyd M, Scott L, Derek C (2015). Barriers to biological fieldwork: what really prevents teaching out of doors? J Biol Educ 49, 165–178.

Scott GW, Goulder R, Wheeler P, Scott LJ, Tobin ML, Marsham S (2012). The value of fieldwork in life and environmental sciences in the context of higher education: a case study in learning about biodiversity. J Sci Educ Tech 21, 11–21.

Seymour E, Hewitt NM (2000). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Smith D (2004). Issues and trends in higher education biology fieldwork. J Biol Educ 39, 6–10.

Summers MF, Hrabowski FA III (2006). Preparing minority scientists and engineers. Science 311, 1870–1871.

Tate KA, Caperton W, Kaiser D, Pruitt NT, White H, Hall E (2015). An exploration of first-generation college students' career development beliefs and experiences. J Career Dev 42, 294–310.

Tinto V (2006). Research and practice of student retention: what next? J Coll Stud Ret 8, 1–19.

Tsui L (2007). Effective strategies to increase diversity in STEM fields: A review of the research literature. J Negro Educ 76, 555–581.

Whalen DF, Shelley MC (2010). Academic Success for STEM and Non-STEM Majors. J Stem Educ 11,45–60.

Willis P, Trondman M (2000). Manifesto for Ethnography. Ethnography 1, 5–16.

Zervanos SM, McLaughlin JS (2003). Teaching biodiversity & evolution through travel course experiences. Am Biol Teach 65, 683–688.




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.