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International Field Courses: The Challenges of Establishing them Versus the Joys of the Trip

By Dr. Steven R. Fassnacht

Vista from the top of the Spanish Sierra Nevada Mountain. Photo credit: Steven Fassnacht

Traveling and experiencing different cultures and climates has been a part of my life since I was a child. I was born in Canada and grew up speaking German, then English. In middle school I learned French. Each summer I would visit my cousins in Germany and each winter we would escape the cold Canadian winter for a week by heading to the Caribbean. As a graduate student, my MS research was in the Arctic, and while not in a different country, it was a different place culturally and climatically than my childhood home of Ontario. During my post-doctoral work, I was able to travel to Australia. Since that time I have been on six of the seven continents, and collected data on five of them. The last continent, Africa, I have seen from the Spanish Sierra Nevada Mountains. I hope to travel there in the future. My travels have given me local perspectives on worldwide problems. In addition to experiencing new cultures I have realized the potential for hands-on field practice, i.e., experiential learning, with students and colleagues in these new places.

As scientists, we have access to a wealth of remotely collected data and information and can do much of our work with just an Internet connection. However, being in a place helps create perspective that may not be available just from analyzing the data. For example, a few years ago, a graduate student and I were meeting weekly and she would show me summarizes of her data, including, spatial (topography and land cover), meteorological (precipitation, temperature, snow), and hydrological (streamflow and water quality) information. Her summaries showed how the system functioned, but could not reveal the true dynamics of the natural system. A visit to the area showed how the surface water flowing through the three Oregon watersheds under study affected the groundwater, wetlands, and agricultural systems of the area. We saw the effects of nitrification in Upper Klamath Lake, and felt the cold of the water in nearby Crater Lake when we took a side trip and dove in. These explorations are representative of what I expect from all potential graduate students, that they get their hands wet (get in the water), get dirty (feel the soil), and/or get cold (work in the snow). Experiential learning is valuable. It creates lasting memories and a hands-on understanding of physical systems that is critical for students developing the scientific skills needed to work on complex resource management problems.

The Watershed Science program at CSU offers a six-day field trip that exposes students to real world water issues. Recent years have given students the opportunity to follow a watershed from headwaters to downstream reaches by exploring portions of the Yampa and North Platte Rivers. The watershed boundaries are physical and essentially two-dimensional. To provide the third dimension it is necessary to include people; their history, culture, and resource management issues. Stops on the six-day trip and associated conversations are therefore lead by practitioners, scientists, consultants, staff of non-profit entities, and others working in water and resources management in these areas. With my love of international travel, I wanted to create a similar experience for students overseas.

Students gaze on the massive melting glacial ice sheets of Iceland. Photo Credit: Steven Fassnacht

Starting in 2013 and 2014, I took trips with students to Spain and Iceland. These focused on water issues, with the topics studied by students in Iceland broadened to include local hydrology, meteorology, glaciology, and geology. These trips provided a foundation for the development of a more formal program through the CSU Office of International Programs (OIP). In January of 2016, I worked with OIP to bring a new group of students to Spain to explore the Duero (Spanish)/ Douro (Portuguese) River from its headwaters near Soria, Spain to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean near Porto, Portugal.

The approval process requires a series of iterative steps including planning, paperwork, revised planning, revised paperwork, and calibration of plans during a trip. Fortunately, OIP has a great team to assist with the process. Planning involves: 1) picking a destination, i.e., what river do we want to follow, 2) picking venues and stops, 3) finding accommodation, 4) arranging flights, and 5) traveling. I chose Spain again for the 2016 trip, as it is culturally different than the U.S. but still quite accessible. I have previous experience working and traveling in Spain, and many students have working knowledge of the Spanish language, which helps.

Well worth the time: we visited the town of Avila, Spain, first settled in the 5th century BC. Here we are at Quatros Postes looking towards the city walls that were created in 1090AD. Photo credit: Steven Fassnacht

For professors considering developing an international component, some brief words of wisdom regarding the extensive paperwork that is needed by OIP as part of the planning process; they require detailed itineraries, flights information, accommodations, health and safety plans, local contacts, and backup plan(s). Formally, organizers must: 1) submit program planning documents at least 4 months prior to travel, 2) complete participant registration and obtain OIP authorization, 3) have each student complete a health and safety orientation with Campus Health Network and/or OIP staff, and 4) purchase airfare and finalize logistics. With student input I found that the website <> was very good for finding the type of accommodations we needed. A student and I underwent background checks so we could coordinate driving the group of seven students around the country. While the previous trips I took with students always included going over health and safety information and creating back up plans, these elements were not formalized, i.e. written down. Risk management is an important part of any trip and working with OIP I was able to articulate how to manage risk and create formal documents. My proposed program went through the International Travel Oversight Committee; their biggest concern was our plan to camp in January in the cold and snow. At the end of the process, I felt more prepared than on past trips. We drove for 11 days, experiencing different ecosystems as we crossed from the mountains where the river starts as a trickle to downstream reaches where the river becomes one of the largest on the Iberian Peninsula. The trip was a great success, with great students, wonderful sights, good food and nice accommodations.

Traveling abroad is not without its issues, but I have been very lucky (and prepared). The first and only problem encountered on the trip was not a big problem, just part of the travel experience. I had arrived in Madrid on the evening before the students were to arrive. I was to meet the first three the next day at the airport and we would take cabs or the metro to our accommodations. On the day of travel I checked online, and Delta Airlines informed me that the first student’s flight from Atlanta was delayed by 30 minutes so I adjusted my in-city travel time. When I arrived at the airport, the arrival sign said that the flight was 45 minutes early. I saw a passenger from the flight with her luggage, “Excuse me, when did the flight arrived?” She looked up, “About me an hour ago”. Slight panic set in as I looked for the first student. While he had been to Europe before, he had not traveled much on his own. Had I already lost the first student? My pace quickened as I made my way towards the baggage claim area, where, to my relief he was waiting patiently for us to arrive. Thankful to say the trip proceeded without incident.

Driving through the Spanish countryside in style (i.e. BMWs)! Photo credit: Steven Fassnacht


Once we were ready to get on the road, I organized the students so that each day everyone had a different partner. As my partner for a day, the student took on the responsibility to coordinate the day’s stops, act as navigator, and (of course) DJ. This gave us all one-on-one time each morning to explore a new city, grab a coffee and chat. Over the trip we saw differences in hydrology, climate, ecology and culture. We drove modern highways, saw Roman aqueducts, and explored much of the history in between. The Duero River system changes dramatically from the headwaters to its mouth at the Atlantic. By combining study of the physical aspects of this system with new cultural experiences the students develop a three-dimensional depth of insight into system functioning that considers the ecological, hydrological and social aspects of the watershed, which is much more than can be gained by computer-based explorations of their world alone. I look forward to the next opportunity to go abroad with students.

Dr. Steven R. Fassnacht is a Professor of Watershed Science in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, check out his research, news and updates here. Feel free to get in touch if you want some ideas in planning your own trip!