When properly planned and well-facilitated, field trips can provide students with valuable experiences, lasting memories, and strong academic benefits. Many educators understand the importance of field trips, but for a variety of reasons, these learning activities may be under increasing scrutiny.
Unsurprisingly, some schools face budget cuts that make the cost of admission to historical museums, cultural centers, and sites in addition to transportation costs and other fees prohibitive. Also, administrators as well as teachers may see field trips as "extra" activities that cut into class time and contribute little to student achievement—and maybe in the past, they were, in fact, just a day away from school.
Meaningful field trips are well-planned, carefully researched activities. When organizing a field trip, take the time to consider how such a trip will enrich your students' learning, provide a memorable experience that also exposes students to another aspect of their community, and even offer a look at possible career paths.
Making the Most of Museums
Lynn-Steven Engelke, director of programs for the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, encourages educators to take advantage of the wide variety of resources museums have to offer.
Field trips offer numerous benefits, such as student engagement, says Engelke. The best field trips allow kids to talk to curators, scientists, historians, and other professionals, she explains. Seeing adults in action, and discussing their work and research, can be an enlightening experience for students, especially those with few enrichment opportunities outside of school.
"Kids make the connections between something someone is doing in a museum and their own personal lives," says Engelke. "It opens up a world of possibilities."
Knowing why you are planning a field trip and what you are planning to do will help the site coordinators better meet your needs and will help ensure that students get the most out of the experience. When planning, teachers should ask, "What is [my] goal in having children go to a museum?" says Engelke. "Having fun should certainly be part of it, but how is it going to work with what you're currently teaching or as a launch for something you will be teaching?"
When designing your field trip, whether you plan to enlist the help of site tour guides or other staff during your visit, be sure to check in with the site's education department to discuss what resources you can use with your students, to get assistance with making curricular tie-ins, and to discover what hands-on activities students can do at the site and what types of follow-up activities would enhance the experience.
Be targeted in your planning. Don't try to do everything all at once, Engelke recommends. "It's good to focus on one exhibition or one part of an exhibition," she says. Also, ask what type of access students can gain behind the scenes. These experiences can often be more memorable for students than a basic tour.
On its education department site (www.smithsonianeducation.org), the Smithsonian offers a wealth of resources, including a database of activities and tours that meet state learning standards, as well as lesson plans, videos, and suggested student readings. There's even a document explaining the justifications for field trips. Can't make it to Washington, D.C.? Adapt these resources for use at your local museums, historic sites, and cultural centers.
Here are some things to consider when designing a meaningful field trip.
Question your motivation when choosing a site. What will this particular site offer, and why choose this site instead of another? Does the museum offer a specific exhibition that connects to the class curriculum? Can your chemistry students work with a scientist in his lab to understand the process of conducting scientific research? Will your drama students be able to get a behind-the-scenes tour with the stage manager of a local theater?
Next, create a list of questions for the education staff (if applicable) or an appropriate site coordinator who can assist you in planning activities and provide you with resources that you can share with your students.
Visit the field trip site in advance.
Get the lay of the land before bringing dozens of students. Familiarize yourself with the locations of the bathrooms, exits, and what's around the field trip site. Is this a safe area for your students? What distractions should you be sure to steer them away from?
Prepare students for the field trip. To get students ready, you may need to teach new content or review past lessons. Share the resources from the site and explain to students what the on-site and follow-up activities will include. Also discuss your rules and expectations, as well as appropriate dress and other important information. When students know what to expect, they are better able to participate once they arrive at the actual site.
Allow students some time to explore on their own. Brian Myers and Linda Jones explain in the report Effective Use of Field Trips in Educational Programming: A Three Stage Approach that young people need time to acquaint themselves with a new environment. Allow students to view items in the visitor area or lobby. "This exploration time allows participants to get comfortable with their surroundings. Once the basic curiosity of the facility is satisfied, learners are better able to focus their attention on the content topics to be learned," the authors say.
Act as a facilitator. "Throughout the field trip, the organizer should be actively engaged in teaching activities," say Myers and Jones. "During field trips, organizers should function more as facilitators or guides rather than directors. By playing an active rather than passive role during the field trip, organizers can increase student interest and learning."
Provide a learning activity at the site. Let kids talk. Small-group activities, scavenger hunts, interactive games, and other engaging activities allow kids to discuss what they've learned and explore their thoughts and questions about the experience.
For example, Engelke says a recent group of 3rd graders who had been creating podcasts wanted to learn about mammals. "We had them compare what they could learn about mammals by going to the mammal hall at the Natural History Museum and by going to the small mammal house at the National Zoo," says Engelke.
Prior to the trip, the students conducted research, wrote essays about what they thought they would find at each place, and came up with questions they would ask. "[At Natural History] they used recording devices, they interviewed other visitors, and asked a scientist questions. When they went to the zoo, they talked with a small mammal biologist," says Engelke. "When they put all the information from both trips together, comparing what they learned, they realized that they learned really different things at both places—from being able to see the animals up close to being able to study animal behavior. That's the sort of ideal field trip model."
Conduct a follow-up activity. The field trip experience should extend to the classroom. Debrief the students and ask them about their overall impressions, any challenges they faced, and the activities they did. Students should also do a culminating activity that allows them to apply what they learned on the trip and demonstrate this knowledge in some way.
Can't Take a Trip?
Are you lacking funds for long bus rides and entrance fees? Keep an eye out for field trip grants. Also, consider places within your own community, such as local businesses and community service providers, who can help illuminate class lessons. You can also tap into free virtual resources like the Smithsonian's Classroom Videoconferencing programs.
Good field trips can be inspiring and engaging and open new doors for young people. "[They can] really show what children can do with their lives and inspire them to learn more," says Engelke.
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