Techniques for Field Studies

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  • 0:00 Biological Field Studies
  • 0:55 Sampling
  • 3:05 Collecting Data
  • 4:15 Environmental Measurements
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Not all science can be done in labs. Especially in the field of biology, research often requires leaving the lab. In this lesson we check out basic techniques for field studies and see what science looks like outside the lab.

Biological Field Studies

Hey! Let's do some science. Yeah, I'm excited too! Now, we could stay in the lab, calculate data on a computer and look at some stuff under a microscope. Or… we could go do some field work. For all of the great technology we have, sometimes you still need to just get your boots dirty and head out into the field, especially in the study of biology. I mean, after all, this is the study of living things and most living things aren't naturally occurring within the lab.

So, we need to collect data in the real world, and how we do that is important. Take this research project on fish populations. We've done as much as we can do in the lab. Now we need data from the field. So grab your waders, and let's go do some science!


So, we're studying fish populations in our local rivers and ponds. The thing is: we've got lots of rivers and ponds here, holding thousands of fish. Obviously, we can't try and collect data on every single one. So, the method most commonly used for field research is sampling, the collecting of data from a smaller subset of the total, and assuming that it represents the whole. Basically, we'll only study fish populations in a few spots, and then make the educated assumption that these results represent the overall region.

So, this means that the first step is site selection, or picking the locations for data collection. This is an important task. We need to find sites that can represent the entire region, so they need to be typical in their water temperature, pH balance, proximity to roads or human structures and amounts of vegetation.

Okay, the team has found a few sites that are very similar to each other and are typical of the region. We know where we're going to collect our data, but now we need to figure out how. There are three basic methods for sampling.

First is random, randomly selecting spots within each site to test. We use a computer algorithm to determine what spot in each site we focus on, removing any human subjectivity.

The next method is systematic, in which data is collected in a uniform method. This is easier than random sampling, and still accurate. The most common form of systematic sampling is a transect, the creation of a single path across a site along which data is collected. In essence, we all follow along a single path, and record things in terms of the frequency of their appearance and distance from the line.

The last method of sampling is stratified, in which various groups within a data set are examined individually and systematically.

For this field research, I'm thinking the random sample will be the most practical.

Collecting Data

Now that we have our site and our method, it's time to actually collect data. We need to think carefully about this, since different research requires different data collection. Were this a systematic study of land plants, we could just walk along a line and count. However, we're looking at fish, and in particular, the health of fish populations, so we need to take some living samples back to the lab.

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