Leading Productive Field Trips

In this section, Anne Whiston Spirn shares her insights about facilitating field trips in 11.016J/4.211J The Once and Future City.

Field trips in this course take place during class time. Since class lasts only an hour and a half, the field trips have to be somewhere that we can walk to from the classroom. The first year I added the field trips, I chose the area to the north of the MIT campus. Many changes have have taken place there over the years. In choosing the route, I looked for traces from different time periods—street patterns, housing types, and businesses that belonged to different time periods—so we could compare and contrast as we walked around. The area north of campus has much more variety than the campus itself, even though the campus is pretty interesting.

The field trips are designed to give the students an introduction to methodsof observation before they have to go out and perform field observations on their own at the sites they choose for their projects. We walk around and I show them how to look at things, how to find significant detail. But what is significant? Some students don’t see anything at all; they really have a hard time. Others see so many things that they can’t make sense out of what is significant and what is trivial. The field trip helps both kinds of students, because we talk about what we are seeing, asking what we can observe that provides a clue to the processes that are shaping or have shaped a place.

I take the students on a route that I’ve already walked myself and where I’ve found significant phenomena that the students might also find at their own sites. The first field trip is about environmental history and natural processes, so we’re looking for evidence of these processes: the impact of wind, solar radiation, plant growth, reproduction— whatever signs we can find of ongoing natural processes. I take the students to a parking lot on Albany Street. We look at the cracks in the pavement and the asphalt, and we look at the drainage, and where the water is flowing. What impact do we see of that water flow? Can we find erosion? Can we find signs of subsidence? We look at a nineteenth-century map of Cambridge and discover that the railroad tracks along one side of the parking lot once marked the shoreline of the Charles River. Much of MIT’s campus was once under water.

It’s wonderful teaching MIT students because they get a chance to apply their scientific understanding of these processes in the real world.

— Anne Whiston Spirn

Further on, we go to an area where the same species of trees are planted. Some of them are planted in the sidewalk, and others are planted alongside the building in a large swath of open soil. The trees were planted at the same time, but we observe that the trees planted in the sidewalk are much smaller, they haven’t grown very much, but the ones in open soil have grown almost twice as high. On another street, we look at the difference between plants on the north-facing side of the street and south-facing side. The south facing side gets much more sunlight. It’s drier, hotter. The north-facing side is darker, moister; and you can see, particularly if you look for the same kind of species and compare with those across the street, how each tree is doing. You can observe the branching habit; the trees on the north-facing side might be leaning way out to get sun. Plants provide a clue to the overall environmental conditions of a place.

I also stress the fact that the students need to pay attention to direction, and it’s helpful to have a compass. I hope for snow during the second assignment, which comes at the end of February, because snow reveals wind patterns and differential melting on the north versus the south side of a building. We look at icicles. Why do some roofs have icicles, and some have none? What’s causing the difference? They students have all taken physics. It’s wonderful teaching MIT students because they get a chance to apply their scientific understanding of these processes in the real world.