CONS 451 (Integrated Field School) is a course like no other in Canada. It is truly transdisciplinary involving the integration and application of the natural and social sciences.  In this 15-credit capstone course, students use their undergraduate experience to address conservation issues in alpine, grasslands, and aquatic ecosystems.  The unique structure of this course allows students to immerse themselves in their studies and is the sole focus for students in their fall semester.

Field Studies and Experiential Learning

For each ecosystem, students spend one week conducting field studies in situ and three weeks completing group and individual projects.  Students are provided with workshops and seminars to develop their ideas and expert advice on how to achieve their goals.

Field-based activities are designed to engage students in active learning experiences that deal with the complex issues surrounding natural resource conservation.  Projects are designed to emulate research and management challenges currently facing practitioners and draw on the expertise of government scientists, non-government organizations and academic researchers.

The Alpine Ecosystem

In the alpine module, students conduct a vegetation survey of their own design to study how community structure develops in this fragile ecosystem.  In 2009, students partnered with BC Parks to examine tree ingress into higher elevations with climate change.  In the years to come, this project will contribute much-needed information on the influence of climate change in BC’s coastal alpine ecosystems.

For the past 12 years, CONS 451 students have also experienced the challenges and rewards of restoration in alpine ecosystems, by working to restore trails to alpine meadows in the Elfin Lakes area.  Students also develop and compare land use plans for the Squamish area, drawing on the experience and expertise of invited speakers.

The Grasslands Ecosystem

In the grasslands ecosystem, students focus on the sociological, ecological, and management practices of fire suppression in the South Okanagan.  In partnership with the Ministry of Forests, students conduct studies in the Vaseux-Bighorn Wildlife Reserve, while learning census techniques for birds, ungulates and plants.

Student learning is enriched by guest speakers and visits to local venues which provide insight into First Nations history and culture, organic farming and viticulture, species at risk, and ranching.  Through independent work in this module, students hone their scientific writing skills and are encouraged to advance their knowledge of statistics.

The Aquatic Ecosystem

The UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest provides an unparalleled venue for the aquatic component of the course.

Students study stream and lake ecosystems, learning about the ecology of invertebrates, amphibians, and fish as well as survey techniques used by researchers. Students work alongside research forest staff and learn about the realities and complexities of planning forest harvesting, such as balancing priorities among community values, conservation, and business.

The final projects in the aquatic module of CONS 451require students to take on the role of resource managers, drafting watershed restoration prioritization plans for species at risk and designing monitoring studies to evaluate restoration in heavily developed watersheds.

Student Praise for CONS 451

Students frequently cite this course as the most meaningful experience in their undergraduate education.

Brendan Guy, a CONS 451 student in the Fall of 2009, says the "field school provided the perfect opportunity to apply the theoretical knowledge base I have gained in the classroom over the last three years towards researching and solving real-world conservation problems".

Guy also advocates that other courses and programs and UBC adopt a similar experiential learning model.

"I would highly recommend that other programs and faculties, both at UBC and other institutions, use CONS 451 as a model of an immersive, experiential student learning experience. The intangible skills and first-hand knowledge that I gained as a result of the hands-on learning environment will be immensely valuable moving forward in my career and could not have been conveyed through the traditional classroom teaching model".

By Suzie Lavallee, Instructor, Faculty of Forestry