Curation Methods Class at UC Center for Field Studies Exemplifies Experiential Learning

Students and faculty examining fossils

At the University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies, a renovated farm roughly 20 miles northwest of the University’s Uptown Campus, anthropology students in Ken Tankersley’s Curation Methods class unpack cardboard boxes filled with bones, artifacts and fragments. Using methodologies that are practiced by institutions like the Smithsonian Institution, they sort, curate, label, organize, and record information about artifacts that have belonged to the University for decades. The objects and materials they’re sorting were mostly haphazardly thrown in boxes many years ago with little rhyme or reason.

At the time, they knew absolutely nothing about archaeology, so they were told to just keep everything,” says Tankersley, Associate Professor of Geology at UC. “The decision of whether or not you keep something, whether or not something is important, is up to the curator. It’s a judgement call that we make.”

UC center for field studies house

The University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies (UCCFS) blends science with a connection to the great outdoors, allowing students to learn how to apply the theoretical to the real. Working in one of the UCCFS labs, Dominique Sparks, a graduate student studying archaeology, inputs data obtained from the class into a spreadsheet. Sparks assigns what is called an accession number, a unique alpha-numeric number, to each artifact and acquisition. These records are methodically labeled for future research.

“Ultimately these records go on the internet, so a researcher anywhere in the world — in China, in India, in Venezuela, anywhere — could access our data to see if we have what they’re looking for,” he tells his students at the beginning of class.

Sparks, who started working at the Center through an internship for her Historical Preservation Certificate, benefited by being able to hone her evaluation skills through hands-on interaction.

Someone examining a set of fossils

“When everyone’s asking ‘is this something we should save?’ or ‘is this artifact important?’ I had already been able to hold different versions of the same artifact,” Sparks said. “I could use that experience to help make judgement calls.”

Tankersley’s class exemplifies a style of experiential learning that helps students understand the material not just by seeing the artifacts, but also by making decisions based on the information and education they have available. This helps students develop confidence in their ability to think critically, along with helping them develop the ability to handle ambiguity.       

Open Classroom Week

Tankersley opened his class to university staff and faculty in association with Open Classrooms Week. The Open Classrooms Initiative, spearheaded by the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CET&L) and the College of Arts and Sciences Instructional Innovation Advisory Council (iiAC) , promotes reflection and conversation about learning and teaching at UC.


“Often times when you’re in a classroom, and you have someone observe you, there’s some kind of assessment tied to that,” says CET&L Assistant Director Kimber Andrews.


The goal of open classrooms, however, is to dispel that myth and create an environment where neither party feels intimidated or judged.


Professors volunteer to open up their classrooms for observation which inspires a dialogue between faculty about effective teaching practices and how they can be adapted to different disciplines.


“You don’t need to feel like ‘if I volunteer to open my classroom I need to have the best pedagogy’,” Andrews says. “It’s more about transparency in teaching.”

Photograph of Margaret Hanson

Margaret Hanson, associate dean for Natural Sciences and member of the iiAC, helped organize the Open Classroom Initiative. She reached out to professors, and pushed for A&S to be the first college to try out the initiative.

“This project wouldn’t have had the success it has had without Margaret,” says Andrews.

“Teaching, itself, is a very personal thing,” says Hanson. “But we really want to create an environment where faculty look and think about their teaching, and also reach out to each other for constructive feedback.”

One of the iiAC’s latest proposed initiatives is to find a way to introduce more group work into classrooms, either during classroom participation or  through group projects.

“[Students] have to get their hands dirty, they’ve got to get in there and do it themselves,” says Hanson.

Initiatives lead by the iiAC and CET&L such as the Open Classrooms Initiative align with UC President Neville Pinto’s Next Lives Here strategic goals – goals that help students prepare for a successful future.