This article reviews key design elements for an experiential learning field course on hazards and disaster risk reduction in Indonesia.

By Brent Doberstein, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo and Lacey Willmott, PhD Candidate in Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (UNISDR 2015, 15) calls for “training and education on disaster risk reduction” in order to facilitate global disaster risk reduction (DRR). While much of the training and education may be delivered through conventional classroom-based learning, this article contends that field-based experiential learning is an important component of the comprehensive DRR education that the Sendai framework is hoping to stimulate globally, particularly for young professional and student audiences.

Many universities have placed a priority on providing innovative experiential education opportunities for their students, and this has stimulated demand for local and international field courses. Experiential learning, defined as “knowledge (which) is continuously derived from and tested out in experiences by the learner” (Kolb 2014, 38) is, almost by default, at the heart of most field courses. Numerous authors (Dummer et. al. 2008, Hope 2009, Herrick 2010, Yigitcanlar 2013, Behrendt and Franklin 2014, Kolb 2014) point to the multiple educational benefits of field courses:

  • Facilitates ‘deep learning’
  • Links emotions, feelings and values to learning
  • Increases enjoyment of the subject/discipline, which in turn enhances student engagement
  • Leads to useful and marketable skills (e.g. International experience, cross-cultural skills, research methods, DRR planning)
  • Contextualizes (and challenges) theoretical knowledge
  • Allows for (safe) failure, so students can take risks in their learning
  • Facilitates direct discussion with local disaster-affected people and DRR experts
  • Creates the conditions for student efforts to synthesize conceptual and applied knowledge
  • Provides opportunities for service learning

Field courses provide particularly effective experiential DRR learning, since these expose students to the often chaotic, messy real world contexts in which disasters unfold, the ‘wicked’ problems associated with disasters (Tatham and Houghton 2011) and the innovative DRR solutions practiced worldwide. In the immersive field course environment, learning happens through direct engagement and experiences in the field, which often involves jarring and even unsettling contrasts between theories/concepts learned in the classroom and the ‘real world’. This contrast is particularly acute when students carry out their own directed research which is, at least initially, often built on literature-based theories and concepts. Contradictions between theory and reality, and personal efforts by the student to reconcile contradictions, is at the heart of powerful DRR experiential learning experiences. For some students, a field course may be their first or only opportunity for experiential learning in their formal education.

The goal of this article is to provide guidance to other educators on how to design effective experiential learning field courses exploring hazards and disasters themes, using a summer 2016 University of Waterloo undergraduate field course on ‘hazards and disaster risk reduction in Indonesia’ as a practical example.

Course Overview

The field course was designed as an intensive three-week experience using the Indonesian island of Java as a study site. Indonesia is an ideal country for the study of hazards/disasters due to the prevalence of hazards/disasters in the country, long history of community co-existence with hazards, strong governmental commitment to DRR (James (2008, 426) referred to Indonesia as “the most progressive in the region”) and presence of clear examples of the benefits of co-existing with hazards (e.g. soil fertility on volcanic slopes).  The course was designed around four main objectives: 1) to stimulate understanding of current issues and problems related to hazards and disasters in Java, Indonesia; 2) to foster an appreciation for the challenges of ‘developing while living with hazards’;  3) to allow students to appreciate the positive aspects of hazards and disasters, and;  4) to provide the source material for student-designed, original applied research. A total of 14 undergraduate and 2 graduate students travelled approximately 1500 kms by bus during the course, visiting 7 main sites (see Fig. 1). In order, these included 1) the city of Yogyakarta (2006 earthquake), 2) Mt. Merapi (2010 volcanic eruption and lahar flows), 3) Pangandaran (2006 tsunami), 4) the city of Surakarta (2007 floodàresettlement), 5) the city of Sidoarjo (2007 Lusi mud volcano), and the 6) Kawah Ijen and; 7) Mt. Bromo volcano complexes.

Figure 1: Field course case study sites, Java, Indonesia

Course Structure

Numerous field course outlines and pedagogical materials on field course design were consulted by the instructor before key course elements were chosen. These key elements included the following: pairing with local Indonesian University of Gadjah Mada (UGM) academics to facilitate field course logistics, employing two fulltime UGM graduate student assistants/translators who were ‘embedded’ in the course, allowing students to select and design their own research topic within the broad DRR umbrella, and using field course sites as a backdrop for student-led field presentations. Of the many field course models that were available, a modified “Cook’s Tour” model (Herrick 2010) was chosen: a rapid but extensive field course in which many sites are visited in a relatively short time period, modified to allow deeper student engagement through student-directed research.

Figure 2: Field course students interacting with Project Child community clients (Photo: Project Child Indonesia 2016)

One additional and important design element involved voluntary pre-trip student fundraising to support an Indonesian NGO, Project Child Indonesia, which works with vulnerable and hazard-affected children and their families (Project Child Indonesia 2017). Pedagogically, the course instructor felt that having students fundraise for an NGO working in the disaster field would personalize and make the overseas experience ‘more real/grounded’. Prior to the field course, students gave up one regular luxury item (e.g. a daily dose of Starbucks coffee) for 4-6 weeks and then donated the equivalent savings, raising over $1250 Cdn in total. Students visited the NGO’s main office, discussed the NGO’s work with the program manager, walked through the NGO’s disaster-affected client communities, and interacted with community members (see Fig. 2 & Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Project Child NGO focus: DRR in flood-vulnerable riverside communities (photo: Brent Doberstein)

Course assignments included an in-field presentation (all students), a daily reflective journal (undergrads), a conference-ready research presentation (grad students), and either a final term paper (all students) or short documentary film (undergrads). Students had the leeway to choose any research topic within the broad ‘hazards, disasters and disaster risk reduction in Indonesia’ course theme for their final paper/documentary, resulting in a diverse array of topics (see Fig. 4). Several students adjusted their topics during the first week of the field course when it became clear that initial research ideas would not work ‘in practice’. Students visited 7 hazard or disaster-related case study sites (see Fig. 1) and had discussions with numerous local experts, researchers, NGO/aid workers, disaster tourism staff and members of disaster-affected communities. Most discussions with resource people were pre-arranged by the instructor, although several came about serendipitously (e.g. while walking along the tsunami-impacted Pangandaran coastline, the course teaching assistant happened to meet a local who had worked for several months on post-tsunami relief work, who then agreed to speak to the group about his experiences).

  • Build back better (post-disaster reconstruction)
  • Urban disasters and the build back better concept
  • Flood disaster management and build back better
  • Informal settlement vulnerability reduction
  • Post-disaster resettlement satisfaction
  • Community level DRR
  • Forestry/protected areas and hazards
  • The extractive industry and hazards
  • Park management and hazards
  • Volcanic hazard evacuation planning
  • Disaster risk reduction and public awareness
  • Health implications of disasters
  • Build back better concept in Bantul, Indonesia: post-earthquake reconstruction
  • Disasters and tourism
  • Post-disaster resettlement: how to prevent return? (graduate student)
  • Sendai framework health applications in DRR (graduate student)

Figure 4: Student Research Topics

Student evaluations of their field course experience

Post-course evaluations were conducted with students to determine the extent to which the course design facilitated learning, and the experiential nature of the course was mentioned frequently as a highlight. The course was ranked either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ by all 16 students, and the modified Cook’s Tour model was ranked highest out of five alternative course design models presented to students (e.g. a ‘community service model’ in which students work intensively on a real-world DRR problem in one or two communities). In addition, students often mentioned the experiential nature of their learning in daily journal entries. For example, one student reflected that “today’s field trip was related to my topic. It makes it so much easier to understand an issue when you can physically experience the place itself”. Another student commented:

I learned so much from all of our excursions. It really is hard to understand the hardship of going through a disaster when it’s being read out of a textbook. It’s a completely other thing when you’re witnessing how people’s lives have changed because of the disaster.

The sensory aspect of experiential learning was highlighted in this student journal comment: “Bromo is an active volcano, and we could see it smoking…(from) the top of the crater. Not only could you see it, but you could also hear it. Rumbling, getting ready for something big, like the earth was angry. These types of comments are almost never seen in student evaluations of traditional lecture-based courses.


Overall, this article concludes that DRR-themed field courses are a critical part of a hazards and disasters education. Experiential learning reinforces and challenges ‘book learning’, and deepens the knowledge gained by students. Field courses thus unleash a powerful form of experiential learning which is crucial to addressing the need for a comprehensive DRR education identified in the Sendai framework.

Acknowledgement: this article was based on a presentation delivered at the Canadian Risks and Hazards Network (CRHnet) 13th annual symposium in Montreal, Canada, Nov. 23-25th, 2016. We would like to acknowledge CRHnet President Ernest MacGillivray for encouraging University of Waterloo student presenters at CHRnet 2016 and us to publish presentations as short review articles in HazNet.


Brent Doberstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. His main research focus is on the human dimensions of natural hazards and disasters, and resource and environmental management. Much of his research and teaching focuses on how communities interact with their natural environment, and how human decision-making influences this interaction. Contact:


Lacey Willmott is a PhD Candidate in Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. Her research interests include disaster management, gender and global health, with a regional focus on Southern Africa. She completed her MSc research in Indonesia examining small island sustainable development and municipal service provision.



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