Miller encourages fall break trips

As Yale College prepares to follow a new academic calendar with a five-day fall break in the 2012-’13 school year, Yale College Dean Mary Miller is encouraging professors to consider holding field trips during the short vacation.

Earlier this month, Miller met with a group of faculty members — many of whom already include field trips in their classes — to discuss how different departments approach these trips, and whether the break could allow for more to happen. Though the fall break will free up time for class trips, such excursions will be largely contingent on the finances of individual departments, as the University does not have a central source of funding for them. But with more than seven months to go until the inaugural fall break, only a few professors have considered organizing trips and many said it is too early to make plans.

Miller said field trips can be “integral” to courses from a variety of disciplines, as they can both enrich the curriculum and help students develop greater interest in a field. While the University does not keep records of how many courses include field trips, classes hold trips that range from excursions in New Haven to trips abroad during spring break and over the summer.

“I just want people to realize [the fall break] is a change in our calendar that may open doors,” Miller said. “Let’s think creatively about it.”

David Evans, a geology and geophysics professor, said he intends to hold a field trip during the fall break for his course “Dynamic Earth Laboratory and Field Methods.” Though the class has previously taken weekend trips around Connecticut to collect earth samples, Evans said he would prefer to take his students on longer excursions to Quebec or Vermont, which he said are better areas for conducting geological studies. Architecture and Urbanism professor Dolores Hayden, who teaches two fall courses — “American Cultural Landscapes” and “Poets’ Landscapes” — said she will suggest optional, “self-guided” trips that students can take during the new break, such as visiting historic sites around Connecticut and Massachusetts.

As other professors think about the possibility of taking trips during the fall break, they must also consider how they would obtain funding for such events. Most departments do not specifically allocate funds for class trips, though many have departmental endowments or other sources of funding they can use to support professors who want to take trips.

Evans said he thinks funding issues can be a determining factor for professors who are interested in holding field trips.

“If [the University] had a dedicated allocation of funding available across all departments, that would certainly help a lot of departments in a major way,” he said.

Evans said the Department of Geology & Geophysics is relatively unique in that it has an endowment for travel expenses. The funding allows classes within the department to take regular field trips, he added, on which both undergraduates and graduate students travel to locations as far as New Zealand and South Africa.

Geology and geophysics professor David Bercovici, whose “Natural Disasters” class will take students to observe volcanoes in Martinique and Dominica over spring break, called field trips “absolutely crucial” in helping students absorb material and develop geology skills.

Anthropology professor Richard Burger, who teaches a spring semester freshman seminar on the Incas that takes its students to Peru that summer, said his trip has also been supported by endowment funding. The Peru excursion draws money from an endowment designated for travel expenses to conduct Latin American archaeology, he said.

Four other faculty members said they have not yet considered incorporating class activities into the fall break.

English professor Langdon Hammer, who has taken trips with students before and brought one class to visit poet James Merill’s home in Stonington, Conn. this spring, said he has not decided how to approach academic excursions next semester.

“The syllabus is always built around breaks — they shape the rhythm of the semester, and create problems and possibilities,” he said. “The new fall break will too. But I’m not sure yet how I’ll use it.”

Eight professors interviewed who already hold field trips say the trips help students understand and actively engage with material beyond the classroom.

But two professors who have held field trips said they would like to leave the fall break free of class activities.

“The Yale College curriculum is so full that students need more, not less, time for independent study and the space and leisure in which to think about their studies,” classics professor Emily Greenwood said in a Tuesday email.

Zachary Belway ’13, who traveled to the Amazon last spring to collect fungi samples as part of chemistry professor Scott Strobel’s “Rain Forest expedition and laboratory” course, said he thinks class field trips are often more engaging than traditional lectures and labs.

Catherine Sheard ’12 and Andrew Everett ’12 said their experiences in ecology and evolutionary biology professor Richard Prum’s spring 2009 “Laboratory for Ornithology” course — which traveled to Ecuador in previous years but did not have enough funding to take the trip in 2011 — was their major motivation for choosing the ecology and evolutionary biology track in the biology major.

The 2012 fall break will run from Wednesday, Oct. 24 through Sunday, Oct. 28.

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