Field research is alive in the Sonoran Desert
Sections    Wednesday June 19th, 2019
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Field research is alive in the Sonoran Desert

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  • Julie Farbarik / Catalina Foothills School District

Field Studies Class Photo Courtesy Of Catalina Foothills School District

“Ms. Fulgham, there’s something dead over here!”

“What is it?” I replied.

“I don’t know, it’s got to be a rodent because its front teeth are orange – a rat…a mouse?”

Field research is alive in the Sonoran Desert FieldResearchInside

Field studies class Photo courtesy of Catalina Foothills School District

We were on a field trip, exploring a canyon in Southern Arizona. As the two students peered into the brush, they called me over. I reminded them of an earlier lesson in our Field Science class. “Look at the body length, the size of the ears, the back feet…”

“It looks about as long as a mouse,” one student observed.

“And the ears are small…A kangaroo rat?” the other student guessed.

“The body’s not big enough. What else is in that family?” I asked.

“Pocket mouse?”

To sharpen the girls’ observations, I asked, “Are there any cheek pouches beside the mouth?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Keep going, I thought. “How big are the tarsals? Big enough for jumping?”

“Maybe. Let me take a closer look.”


Stories like this are at the heart of my field science courses, where the natural world is the classroom. Curriculum authenticity requires students and teachers alike to use content and skills to solve new and authentic problems.

Instead of teaching STEM content and/or concepts in isolation, I use a multi-disciplinary approach in the Field Science and Advanced Field Science courses that I teach at Catalina Foothills High School. They are physics-based courses that are science options for third year students.

When I plan units of study, I weave together various scientific fields in the same way that scientists study them in the natural world. I am fortunate that my authentic, real-world learning space consists of ten acres of semi-wild Sonoran desert with an active wash that is directly outside of my classroom. Every day, students observe many species of birds, plants, reptiles, and mammals in a beautiful desert environment.


The structure of the Field Science courses is different than a typical sequential course series. Instead of being organized as a series of discrete, ‘one-and-done’ units, most lessons are woven like overlapping threads throughout the year.

Common to all of these threads is the opportunity to perform meaningful scientific inquiry. Field experiences, whether they are on campus or out in the natural world, provide a rich environment for students to experience authentic curricula. With each exploration, students build their own unique understanding of the course content.
field study


My students begin these courses with a basic understanding of field science. On the second day of school, we head outside to build the foundational knowledge they will need, starting with identification skills. The next few weeks are spent expanding the students’ mental catalog of local birds, plants, mammals and herptiles. Classroom instruction, coupled with outside field experiences, builds this essential knowledge.

The students learn to identify plants, animals and birdcalls based on key characteristics. Gradually, they begin to ask deeper questions by conducting field research using their growing foundation of knowledge. As the students interweave scientific content and inquiry with new knowledge, they build a complex understanding of the natural world.

In the fall semester, students work in teams conducting ethological research on bird behavior, collecting quantitative data through multiple observations. They survey bird species in their natural setting (the wash), noting and categorizing every behavior they observe. Students write their analyses and findings in a technical paper format that is more like a professional journal than a high school lab report.

Early in the year, students go outside to examine ecological succession. Their challenge is to observe and analyze various areas of the school campus in different stages of disturbance


As the course progresses, the quantitative research grows more robust. Students conduct an ongoing vegetative study around the wash. This area is sectioned into permanent study sites (quadrats). Each team has a randomly selected quadrat where they locate and identify every plant, mapping and measuring each one for vegetative analysis later.

Because Field Science began as part of a longitudinal study of the school’s impact on the local plant community, the program has a rich history of scientific information. Each team’s data is added to the data collected from all previous years, now stretching back 22 years. Students look at the patterns and trends in the analyzed data.

In order to make sense of the large amount of available information, students draw upon their own research as well as classroom resources about plant species and vegetative trends. They can now form justifiable conclusions for the patterns they observe and document.

Students begin to see a broad set of probable answers instead of just one right answer. Often they find that defending an answer is more important than the answer itself.


In the natural area around the wash, my students are responsible for the annual maintenance of a nature trail that is part of the state park trail system. As they learn about trail damage and repair methods, they are introduced to some basic hydrology concepts that will resurface later in the course.

When we delve into hydrology in the spring semester, students can connect their knowledge, including specific terminology, with prior experiential learning. This is a classic example of how the threads of units weave together throughout the year, with the complexity of each thread growing along the way.


As knowledge and field experiences meld together through authentic learning contexts in the Sonoran Desert, my students become the “expert scientists” with a unique skill-set. They find that many of their peers and family members do not have this knowledge. Once my students start learning about plants, animals and processes in nature, they begin to tell me about their personal experiences with them.

Students routinely report how these scientific skills – orienteering, skill development in animal and plant taxonomy, and 22 years of scientific research and data analysis, for example – enable them to view life through a whole new lens. One student concluded, “When you understand how the natural world works, you appreciate it in a whole new way. While other people may be afraid of snakes, I now understand why snakes are important.”

These kinds of insights regularly reveal how my students are developing a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of plant and animal species in our desert environment. When my students see the immediate usefulness of their learning, I know I am providing them with an authentic curriculum that will enable them to transfer their learning to other environmental or scientific contexts.

Kirsten Fulgham has taught science at Catalina Foothills High School, Tucson, AZ for 18 years. Her M.S. degree in Natural Sciences for Teachers required Field research for her thesis. Catalina Foothills H.S. is a P21 Exemplar School.