Transforming a Field Trip into an Expedition: Supporting Active Research and Science Content through a Museum Visit

By Morris, Rebecca | Science Scope, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Transforming a Field Trip into an Expedition: Supporting Active Research and Science Content through a Museum Visit


Morris, Rebecca, Science Scope


Students love field trips, and why shouldn't they? Field trips provide a break from the routine of the school day and an opportunity to learn from the world outside the classroom. Science and natural history museums are popular field-trip destinations, filled with a dizzying array of displays, demonstrations, and hands-on learning opportunities.

After several years of taking students to museums and turning them loose to learn on their own or through a scavenger-hunt activity, I was looking for a new model for a museum field trip. My students often raced through the museum, more interested in catching up with a friend than reading explanatory text, and more anxious to jump to the next question on a scavenger hunt than to reflect on a display or artifact. Students sometimes picked up an interesting fact or tidbit here and there, but there was little opportunity for meaningful classroom follow-up because their experiences were so varied. Overall, their learning experience was superficial and unfocused, and it was difficult to justify taking students away from nonscience classes for the day. Rather than a day engaged with an impressive outside resource, these museum field trips sometimes seemed like a day off from learning.

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A focused and productive learning experience

I was looking for a museum field-trip activity that would support the curriculum of my sixth-grade Earth science course. I wanted my students' museum visit to be a focused, directed, and authentic learning experience, one that would encourage them to engage with the immense resources the museum has to offer. From these concerns and goals, I developed the museum field trip into a short-term, active research project assignment. My students now spend about a week and a half on the assignment, which includes developing a self-generated research question, investigating answers at the museum and online, and reporting their learning to classmates. This approach has transformed the field trip from a casual museum visit into a focused and productive learning experience that students have eagerly embraced.

At its best, active research allows and encourages students to explore an area of personal interest, to make meaning from a variety of sources, and to contribute their learning to that of their peers. Active research is a goal across the curriculum, with national standards in science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies all emphasizing the development of students' skills with research and inquiry (Zorfass and Copel 1998). Young adolescents are developmentally primed for active research because of their innate desire to learn both independently and collaboratively and to share their learning in creative ways. Since beginning this museum research project, I have been impressed with my students' enthusiasm for their challenging tasks. As true active researchers, they are "self-motivated inquirers, investigators, and seekers of knowledge. Each active researcher has a thirst for knowledge, a need to know, [and] a desire to learn" (Zorfass and Copel 1998, p. 2).

Because my school has a tradition of visiting museums in Washington, DC, I chose to focus this research project assignment on the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. This exhibit complements the hydrology unit of my program, and the assignment is a good introduction to the ocean science component of the curriculum. While this article describes my experience with this particular exhibit, the process of encouraging active research can be applied to any museum, exhibit, or gallery in your area.

The Smithsonian has a high-quality, online educators guide about the Sant Ocean Hall (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 2011). In planning this assignment, I combined ideas and resources from the museum's curriculum with my own materials to guide students through the research process. …

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Transforming a Field Trip into an Expedition: Supporting Active Research and Science Content through a Museum Visit
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