Accessible Education in Geoscience – The Unassailable Peak?

A discussion about accessible field work in geoscience education. Today I speak with three guests who offer their perspectives on accessible education in field-based disciplines, specifically the geosciences. 

When you think of a geologist, if in fact you think of one at all, the image that comes to mind is likely a rugged, possibly bearded, white man looking at rocks in the field and holding some kind of rock-breaking tool. Of the first 20 images in a simple Google search for “geologist”, all feature geologists at some rocky outcrop, two are women, and one is a person of colour (Figure 1). All clearly have enough physical ability to hike, climb, or otherwise access remote parts of the countryside. But what if you can’t hike or climb? Does that mean a career as a geologist is out of reach, both literally and figuratively? For many, the answer to this question is yes. Given that this week is National AccessAbility Week in Canada, it seems appropriate to explore accessibility in geoscience and geoscience education.

Figure 1: Series of images generated from a Google search for “geologist”. Retrieved from, May 24, 2020

My introduction to accessible education came early in my career, and hard, when I had to scramble to develop accessible curriculum with no understanding of disability, accessibility or accommodation, and almost no support. I rapidly transitioned to a more proactive, Universal Design-focused approach to curriculum development, and quickly realized that accessibility was more than just machine-readable documents. I’ve been fortunate to connect with support through our Learning Design and Support Team and Accessible Education Services at Fleming College, and with the International Association of Geoscience Diversity (IAGD), which supports students with disabilities and faculty wishing to design accessible geoscience curriculum, including field trips. This blog post, and accompanying podcast, explores the rocky terrain of accessible geology.

Why Fieldwork?

Geology is immersive and observational. As geologists we get into the environment we’re studying, rather than standing on the outside looking in. Anecdotally, field work is considered and essential part of geoscience education, and jurisdictions around the world require a minimum number of fieldwork credits or hours for professional registration (e.g. Geoscientists Canada, 2020). Employers typically consider field experience as an essential skill when considering applicants for employment, and are often contemptuous of applicants and employees who don’t have a solid field background – the “Nintendo” geologists (Sutter, n.d.).

Fieldwork is considered integral to a geoscience education because it: facilitates cognitive skills; prepares students for a future in geoscience (Petkovic, Stokes, and Caulkins, 2013); develops students’ identity as geoscientists (Mogk and Goodwin, 2012; Petkovic, Stokes, and Caulkins, 2013; Streule & Craig, 2016), and; allows students to develop communities of practice (Streule & Craig, 2016) – critical for advancement either in education or industry. Field work is also, by its very nature, a highly social experience, the successful completion of which requires collaboration, interaction and group problem solving. Many geologists will concur, myself included, that the days spent in the field were the highlights of their education. Field work, then, is clearly a foundational requirement of a geoscience education, necessary for professional registration, and a perceived requirement of a geoscience career. It also facilitates the transition from student to practitioner, and establishes the social and collaborative framework from which students launch their geoscience career. How then, do students who are denied access to these clearly critical aspects of geoscience education, develop that sense of self as geologist? The short answer is that often they don’t, which further denies them entry into the world of geoscience practice, careers and further education.

In a recent interview on Rock Ed Radio (Hodge, 2020), Dr. Chris Atchison, Executive Director of the IAGD, described the field as being one of the most inaccessible parts of geoscience. In fact this is true for many people, not just students with disabilities. Although I generally loved being in the field, I still remember, 20-something years later, being the last person to the top of the Tongariro Crossing, or the last one to drag myself into camp at the end of the day, because I was not the “rugged outdoorsy type” upon whom geology is predicated. For many students these extremely physical experiences detract from their passion and study of geology, and for some they are insurmountable barriers. But should we just accept that geoscience is the domain of the tough and the hardy, and redirect the attentions of everyone else to a different discipline? Well, no. For a number of reasons.

  1. Accessibility is a right, enshrined here in Ontario in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). I’m not going to discuss the legislation in this forum because I believe that accessible curriculum, including field work, should be a moral imperative, and not driven by compliance, however, Melissa McQuaid, Accessible Education Services counselor at Fleming College, discusses this further in her interview on Rock Ed Radio (Hodge, 2020),
  2. Diversity leads to innovation and problem solving. Dr. Anita Marshall, Lecturer and researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville and Director of Operations for the IAGD, in a PBS interview last year stated: “People with disabilities are incredible innovators. We have to figure things out on a daily basis in a world that is not built for us” (Stein, 2019). Solving scientific problems involves creative thinking, and groups where all the participants have similar backgrounds and world views are less likely to offer differing solutions (e.g. Chachra, 2017).
  3. From an ethical perspective, science that serves society, as geoscience does, should be open to participation by everyone it serves, regardless of background (Chachra, 2017).
  4. Representation is key. It’s very difficult to imagine yourself in an environment where you don’t see yourself represented. Dr. Tom Gill in his interview on Rock Ed Radio, (Hodge, 2020) detailed some of the challenges in pursuing a geoscience education and career as someone with a disability, including the lack of mentors or role models in the industry to whom he could look up and seek guidance.

Breaking Down the Barriers

The medical model of disability (Oliver, 1996) considers individuals as physically weak or defective, and focuses on the physical inabilities of a student (real or perceived), rather than their academic strengths and passions. Disability service providers (DSP) at colleges and universities often operate within this model acting as “gatekeepers”, and directing students towards disciplines that they perceive to be more inline with a student’s “abilities” (Feig, et al., 2019). Dr. Tom Gill explained that his high school teachers and career counselors advised that he likely couldn’t or wouldn’t be a geologist, and that he could consider taking a job as a clerk with the Geological Survey to indulge his passion for earth science, but that his disability would preclude a career as a practicing geoscientist.

The social model of disability considers that participatory barriers to inclusion arises from the interaction of people – who are considered on a spectrum of impairment as part of the human condition – and their social and physical environment (Shakespeare & Watson, 2002). Disability is therefore a social construct, and can be mitigated by removing barriers to participation through the application of Universal Design (the built environment) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL, education).

Students who, for various reasons, are unable to participate in field work are often offered alternative assignments. These are generally written, and remove students from the opportunity to learn with, and from, their peers. These assignments are not immersive, nor do they facilitate the teamwork, camaraderie and initiation as a geoscientist that field based experiences offer. Commonly, however, and I speak from personal experience, faculty don’t know how to accommodate in the field, so seek easier alternatives, thereby depriving students of the opportunities afforded by field work. So, how do we do better? By learning, by asking the right questions of the right people (that’s our students, btw), and by thinking about what “in the field” actually means.

Accessible Field Work

I had the immense privilege of joining the IAGD on their 2019 accessible field trip to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona last year (figure 2). The field trips are designed to provide inclusive, field-based experiences for students with a range of disabilities, and to provide training for faculty who with to learn how to accommodate students with disabilities in field courses. What I thought I would learn was how to design accessible field-based curriculum and use technology. What I actually learned about was people.

A group of people standing on a rock with the Painted Desert in the background.
Figure 2. 2019 IAGD Accessible field trip participants at Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. Participants included Dr. Chris Atchison (back row, 2nd from left), Dr Tom Gill (front row, second from left, seated), and myself (next to Tom). Image retrieved from and used with permission.

Several participants commented on how valuable the accessible field experiences were to them, and how they were often excluded from field work because of their disabilities. For me, being a geologist is integral to my self-identity – who I am, and not just what I do. Without those field experiences, would I feel the same way? Perhaps not, so speaking with participants who generously shared their lived experiences as geoscientists with disabilities made me think about how to better support all my students, and not just the ones who can hike to the top of a mountain and slay an outcrop with a rock hammer. I realized, through participating in this field trip, that shared and collaborative experiences, where people of diverse backgrounds and expertise work together to solve problems, is as valuable, if not more so, than having everyone at the actual rock face. I also learned not to make assumptions, and challenged my own pre-conceived notions of ability and disability.

My goal, therefore, is to develop an annual accessible field camp that promotes inclusion and facilitates the cognitive gains, initiation into geoscience careers and communities that come with fieldwork for ALL my students. I hope, too, that by exposing my students, who are predominantly white and male, to under-represented groups in geoscience, including people with disabilities, they will advocate for more inclusive workplaces once they graduate and commence their own geoscience careers.


Chachra, D. (2017). To reduce gender biases, acknowledge them. Nature, 548, 373.

Feig, A. D., Atchison, C. L., Stokes, A., & Gilley, B. (2019). Achieving inclusive field-based education: Results and recommendations from an accessible geoscience field trip. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 19(2), 66-87. doi:10.14434/josotl.v19i1.23455

Geoscientists Canada. (2020). Becoming a P. Geo. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from Geoscientists Canada:

Hodge, J. L. (2020, June 2). The Unassailable Peak? Rock Ed Radio. Retrieved from

Mogk, D. W., & Goodwin, C. (2012). Learning in the field: Synthesis of research on thinking and learning in the geosciences. In K. A. Kastens, & C. A. Manduca (Eds.), Earth and Mind II: A synthesis on thinking and learning in the geosciences (pp. 131-163). Geological Society of America Special Paper 486. doi:10.1130/2012.2486(24)

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding disability: From theory to practice. New York: St Martin’s.

Petkovic, H. L., Stokes, A., & Caulkins, J. L. (2013). Geoscientists’ perceptions of the value of undergraduate field education. GSA Today, 24(7), 4-10. doi:DOI: 10.1130/GSATG196A.1

Shakespeare, T., & Watson, N. (2002). The social model of disability: An outdated ideology? Research in social science and disability, 2, 9-28.

Stein, V. (2019, August 21). This young scientist studies wild animals. Bias against disabilities won’t stop her. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from

Streule, M. M., & Craig, L. E. (2016). Social learning theories – An important design consideration for geoscience fieldwork. Journal of Geoscience Education, 64(2), 101-107. doi:10.5408/15-119.1

Suttner, L. J. (n.d.). Why should I study geology in the field? Retrieved May 30, 2020, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s