More Than Just a Day Away from School: Planning a Great Science Field Trip

Article excerpt

With all the things that middle school science teachers have to juggle during the year, designing a science field trip can seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are many strategies teachers can use to help ensure that field trips are more than just a day away from school--that they are instead a truly meaningful learning experience.

In the past, some middle school science teachers have had students do scavenger hunts around museums and science centers. However, these experiences do not always engage student minds or connect well to the science that students are learning at school or at home. Instead of simply handing students worksheets of things to locate in a science center, many teachers have found that, with a clear goal and some help from the staff at the field-trip site, they can plan science field trips that support their classroom teaching and get students excited about learning science.

What research has taught us about field trips

Researchers have been examining the elements of effective science field trips for decades. Wolins, Jensen, and Ulzheimer (1992) found that students tended to remember trips in which they had high involvement (mental engagement and actual physical engagement with exhibits and objects). Another factor in the success of field trips was whether or not the teacher built links into the curriculum. Researchers concluded that the strength of the field-trip experience was clearly impacted by whether or not the teacher was able to create a context for the field trip.

Set clear goals

As with any successful learning experience, you should decide what the goals are for your science field-trip experience and communicate these goals to your students. Are you hoping that they will visit an exhibit that will reinforce the content you've been teaching in class in an in-depth manner? Are you hoping that they practice science process skills in a variety of exhibits? Do you want them to gain an understanding of how technology can be integrated with science and engineering? In addition to content or skills-based goals, you might consider goals such as having students develop a positive attitude about science. Getting students excited about science is something that museums can do very well. Regardless of the goals for your trip, a clear focus will help you build the experience you want students to have while out of the classroom.

Before the field trip, you should plan to visit the site to become familiar with offerings and to help establish goals (Koran and Baker 1978). Many science museums offer pretrip planning meetings to allow teachers to get an advanced peek at exhibits and resources available for students. Museum educators can often help teachers tailor their field-trip experience to the needs of their students. If a pretrip visit is not possible, many institutions will help teachers with remote planning through e-mail or phone conversations. In addition, there are several museums across the country with excellent websites for field-trip planning (see Resources). These resources can be used by teachers who are in rural areas, whose classes cannot afford the expense of a trip, or where taking students out of school would be disruptive to other teachers' classes. Figure 1 outlines some important questions a teacher should consider when planning a science field trip.

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Science field-trip models: What will your approach be?

Museums provide many resources to help plan your science field-trip experience. Wolins, Jensen, and Ulzheimer (1992) found that teachers choose a variety of formats to structure student visits to museums. Some may find that they want students to have a more open-ended experience during their field trip, while others might choose for their students to have a more focused experience. Figure 2 explores the elements of these different field-trip types. Field-trip planners many intentionally incorporate some aspects of each type. …