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Science field trips | Teaching

Science field trips | Teaching


For several years, many science concepts have been accepted and included into the curriculum, however more often than not these concepts are incorporated as a division of topics within a specific discipline. For example, specialty science courses like environmental biology, environmental chemistry, environmental physics, and environmental geology.

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Field trips to local spots of interest can be an educational and enlightening component of a science course. In spite of the complexity of arranging these and creating them into the course curriculum, they should be strongly measured. Plan field trips in advance so that the time is used efficiently. For example, if a visit to the local zoo is considered, give students some initial worksheets on animal behaviour while they are there. A visit to a local water resource, information about environment and flora and fauna should come first and follow the trip. Procedures for environment assessment are available from many sources, including the local department of natural resources, the local EPA office, or other professionals like the scenic rivers coordinator in your state.

However the acceptance of science teachers on the use or the incorporation of science fieldtrips in the curriculum has been put in question. Some teachers are hesitant to conduct fieldtrips for various different reasons. Their attitude and behaviour towards this well accepted practice varies from training to a personal judge of their capacity. A study regarding the effect of training on urban science teachers’ perspective on the educational potential of science fieldtrips had been conceptualized to address the trend and its implication to the academe.

Review of Literature

The quality of learning that students acquire and the degree of experience that students have from their educational activities depend greatly on their teachers. The National Standards for Science Education has incorporated a detailed parameter for teachers and teacher preparation programs that will assist in advancing science literacy in their students. There are a very limited number of researches published that evaluates teachers’ opinions with regards to taking their students to natural environments such as museums to learn. The research proposes that teacher’s give importance to outside learning experiences but also report disincentives and significant institutional roadblocks that stand in their way. This review of studies and literatures will discuss how teachers are motivated by this other form of teaching environment and teaching mechanism.

Insight from studies in the last thirty years as to what factors facilitate the learning experience for school field trips were discussed (Bitgood, 1989; Price & Hein, 1991; Griffin, 1998). Falk and Dierking (1992) discuss perceptions that John Falk and associates have gained from their various studies involving field trips. They said that children begin a field trip with two programmes. The first programme is child-centered and focuses on what students imagine they will be doing: seeing exhibits; having fun travelling there; buying gift shop items; and having a day off from their normal school routine. The second programme communicates to the school’s and museum’s expectations. These programmes are that they assume they will learn things and be meeting people who work at the museum.

Field trips are undertaken with a particular reason. These purposes vary. Griffin (1998) did a study involving school excursions to museums in Sydney Australia, and found teachers stated disagreeing purposes for going on field trips. Some of the teachers viewed the field trip as a change of tempo for students and a social experience. Some teachers formulated learning oriented objectives pertaining to the curriculum presented to them. Griffin found that teachers’ explicit and implicit purposes may differ. There are teachers who wishes to incorporate social interaction and enrichment of previously discussed or presented topics therefore resolve the field trip in highly educated manner in which their knowledge and skills will be further enhanced. She suggests that teachers may react in this manner because they are uncomfortable with their capacity to manage their students in an unfamiliar environment. She feels that teachers are perhaps ignorant of, or unable to understand many of the principles of learning in informal environments, such as learning through play and direct involvement with phenomena. In addition, she found that the teacher’s purpose for the field trip influences the students’ rationale for the visit. Therefore it can be said that students’ attitudes tend to mirror the teacher’s attitude (Griffin, 1998; Griffin & Symington, 1980). Research studies by Gottfried (1980) and others support the idea that teachers view field trips as enrichment experiences (Gottfried, 1980; Brigham & Robinson, 1992; Griffin, 1998).

With this given analysis it presupposes that fieldtrips appeal to the educating world as means of escape to a usual habit or pattern. Sometimes it holds true that teachers are not sure of how to facilitate a learning environment outside the four corners of the classroom. As observed some may let the students wander off to the new environment without making any further information on what is seen and observed in the environment to where the educational fieldtrip is conducted.

The author was quick to assume that teacher’s attitudes and motivation to adapt a science fieldtrip in the curriculum relies on their outlook of how they will perform or how prepared they are to facilitated and head the said trips. The accountability is overwhelming for teachers in the eyes of the author.

In this case I presume that the author knows the essence or the importance of the teacher’s readiness to hold such responsibility in being motivated to include a science fieldtrip in their curriculum.

Connections between Informal Science Sites and Schools

In recent times, there has been a growing interest in the development of relationships between informal science sites and schools. This is conceptualized to the detection that informal education sites have the potential to offer more than a one-time field trip to teachers and students. According to Ramey-Gassert (1997), science fieldtrips has many potential benefits. These include improving motivation and attitudes, interactive participation, and fostering curiosity. In itself this may be reason enough for teachers to be interested in promoting connections between schools and informal education sites.

In a sense, fieldtrips may encourage students to actively take part in the study. In fact the application of what is taught at school may be seen and experienced firsthand during fieldtrips. Having done so, teachers may use this to stir student’s curiosity and further encourage them to find means to improve or develop what they have seen. Technology is best taught if the application is seen and viewed by the students.

Michie (1998) found that the environment of informal science learning, which incorporated features such as “voluntary, unstructured, non-assessed, open-ended, and learner-centered” (p. 248) led to heightened student interest. This open-ended learning experience can also have optimistic effects on how students feel about science learning. (Gottfried, 1980). While the most beneficial facet of informal science learning may be the often incalculable notions of appreciation and motivation for further learning, researchers have also reported gains in content knowledge by students (Gottfried, 1980; Fiso, 1982; Munley, 1991).

The freedom to manipulate, operate and explore the learning environment makes learning highly conducive and interesting. This attitude may be encouraged to further stress a point or a concept. Teachers may utilize this to explore the student’s perception and opinion regarding a particular topic. Teachers may very well plan a curriculum under which interactive participation may be facilitated.

Most importantly, informal science sites can offer teachers and students something which they often cannot experience in the formal classroom. Mullins (1998) illustrates the experience this way: it is precisely because informal science sites are informal learning settings, where attendance is voluntary. In an informal science sites, the visitor is at liberty to wander at will, taking in things that connect to previous knowledge and experience, and discovering new ideas with pleasure (p.42).

The appeal of fieldtrips to students is not confound to it being compulsory and rigid. In fact as previously mentioned the idea that this environment is less strict and more open has its appeal to students more and more interesting.

However, before teachers aspire to make schools more like an informal science sites, it is important to understand the inherent differences between schools and informal science sites. Despite doing a similar activity as with the classroom as students in an informal environment, there are important disparities between the assumptions that are made as the teaching/learning is taking place. Informal learning stands separately from school learning in that it is free-choice, non-sequential, self-paced, and voluntary. The formal education system was not designed in this way. Schools are designed to teach students so that they are equipped to function successfully in society. The learning requirements are set as standards that all students are expected to learn. The teaching and learning that most often occurs in schools involves obligatory learning in which learning is focused by a programmed set of requirements imposed externally by a forced authority (Falk, 2001). Unfortunately, as Falk and Dierking (1992) point out, learning has become tantamount with the words “education” and “school” where learning is perceived as “primarily the attainment of new ideas, facts, or information, rather than the consolidation and slow, incremental growth of existing ideas and information” (p. 98). Recognizing these disparities is vital to understanding how each approach and their associated fundamental assumptions are part of the whole learning experience for students and teachers. Instead of trying to make one institution be like the other, a suitable approach may be to recognize the strengths of both informal sciences sites and schools and to bring those resources together to better serve both teachers and students.

Anderson (2004) points out that the informal and formal education communities are pursuing the same goal of educating the public – even if it originates from different assumptions and inherent qualities. One way that informal science sites can contribute to this objective is by helping teachers to gain assurance in teaching science. Science teaching assurance, or science teaching self-efficacy, is an essential component of effective science teaching. Teacher effectiveness has been found to be one of the most important factors influencing teachers’ work (Bitgood, 1993; Lessow, 1990) and is an important factor in teacher motivation. Horizon Research, Inc. (2001a) reported that long-term association with an informal science sites can begin to shift a teacher’s confidence in science teaching. For example, one teacher in their study reports, “This museum has done a lot for the individual teacher. I think many of us have undergone a long-term change in our teaching style, and are more confident and comfortable in a student-centered teaching approach” (p.16). Price and Hein (1991) assures that gains in science assurance and enthusiasm by elementary school teachers after they were engaged in collaborative projects with an informal science sites. According to a national survey which appeared in 2001, only approximately 25 percent of elementary teachers feel they are well qualified to teach science (Horizon Research, 2001a). Furthermore, teachers will normally avoid situations where they qualm their ability to perform successfully. Improving elementary teachers’ science teaching confidence is therefore an imperative factor in the development of science education.

As results of this recognition of the advantages of informal science learning, an increasing number of universities are collaborating with informal science sites in preparing their future teachers. Muse, (1982) describes the many benefits includes the chance to work with children of different ages and backgrounds, the chance to work with other teachers, the chance to practice good science teaching and gain assurance, and the knowledge of science teaching resources. Across all of these partnerships, the specific strengths of the informal sites are acknowledgement and brought into the training of future teachers.

As suggested by a university professor, in addition to the benefits of a unique kind of teaching and learning that occurs in informal environments, research also advocates teachers can benefit from the resources and programs offered by informal science sites. This can include interactive exhibits, educational materials and science equipment that many teachers and school districts cannot afford or do not have access to in school (Rennie, 1995).

Teachers who not using Informal Science

Horizon Research Inc. (2001a) established that there is nearly one informal science education institution for every 1,000 elementary school teachers in the United States. Yet these institutions serve only 10 percent of all U.S. teachers teaching science.

While there has been a changing focus to heightened the numbers of these relationships with teachers, many teachers do not seem to be using museum resources in “partnering” ways where unambiguous links are made to classroom curricula and teachers return for additional assistance and partnership as needed throughout the school year.

The literature on this subject revolves around the assumption that “using informal science” actually pertains to “taking field trips”. These studies do not openly concentrate on those teachers who continually use informal science sites in many different ways. Nonetheless, these studies show why teachers may not be as likely to take their students on field trips as other teachers. Explanations for why teachers are not taking field trips can be arranged into several categories.

Logistics: transportation coordination and cost (Lessow, 1990; Michie, 1998; Price and Hein, 1991), safety concerns (Michie, 1998); and student misbehaviour and large class size (Fido and Gayford, 1982; Lessow, 1990; Price and Hein, 1991)

External Support System: a lack of support from the government who see the field trip as a “vacation” (Michie, 1998; Mullins, 1998; Price and Hein, 1991); and a lack of support from other teachers who are uncomfortable with new experiences and getting out of the classroom (Michie, 1998; Mullins, 1998)

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Personal Motivation: such as fear of failure (Mullins, 1998), lack of energy and time (Lessow, 1990; Michie, 1998; Mullins, 1998; Price and Hein, 1991) low interest (Mullins, 1998); and lack of personal knowledge of and positive experiences with informal science sites (Fido and Gayford, 1982; Michie, 1998)

Availability of Resources: inadequate choice of informal science sites (Michie, 1998)

Orion (1993) points out that many of the complications involved in linking informal science institutions and the formal education system can be addressed to differences in size, orientation, and mission. Informal science sites tend to be smaller than school systems, are profit oriented and are mostly private. Ramey-Gasset (1996) asserts that these obvious differences can make associations very difficult to attain. While both classroom teachers and informal science sites educators have the similar Objectives of educating students, they approach it from very different outlooks.

Schools and informal science sites have not viewed themselves as equal partners; asserting that each feels that they are performing different things in terms of science education, and one does not necessarily complement the other. There is also a common view of informal science educators as “pseudo-educators”. Claiming that “museum educators practice some of the best teaching in a community” may not be entirely correct and may overestimate the teaching proficiency of these teachers (Munley, 1991, p. 14). While many informal science sites educators are superior teachers, many do not have the experience or training to serve as model teachers. For this truth, many school administrators and teachers may not view the informal community as a competent partner in science education. However, this may change. Creating standards for informal science educators has the impending to positively impact future partnership between the informal science community and schools.

Factors Influencing Teachers to take Field Trips

The focal point of this research is on teachers who use the resources of informal science on a regular basis. This subject appears to be focused on the actual field trip and not on using informal science resources in different ways and on a regular basis. There are numerous studies that address this concern of the factors influencing teachers to take field trips.

Lessow (1990) surveyed 585 teachers on their use of informal science and used quantitative analysis to settle on the possible correlations between teacher quality and use of informal science. Some of his major findings were that teachers took more field trips when they had taken personal trips to a particular site felt that their students gained either cognitively or affectively. Lessow (1990) did not find that those teachers who assumed having a science related hobby, read science journals or attended more professional development took more field trips. And those teachers with more experience teaching also did not take more trips than other teachers. While this study had some interesting findings, it did not disclose the nature of these trips or teachers’ personal thoughts on taking them. While Lessow (1990) addressed the efficiency of the field trips, this was determined primarily through survey answers and focused around the use of pre-visit and post-visit activities. Therefore, how these teachers used these sites was not revealed.

Michie (1998) interviewed 28 secondary science teachers in Australia to determine the influences on them to organize and conduct field trips. It was found that teachers who took field trips wanted to give students hands-on, real life experiences which they could not have in the classroom. He also said that while there was some perplexity on the usefulness of field trips, most teachers accepted the cognitive gains associated with the trips. There were some teachers who commented on the emotional values. In addition, six more experienced teachers– elementary teacher to college professors were chosen for follow-up interviews. These expert teachers reported that they conducted field trips for three reasons. The first was because of the positive benefits they and their students receive in reference to the relationships that developed among students, between students and teachers, and between students and informal educators. Mullins (1998) reported that these relationships “raised confidence, invigorated lives and enhanced their questioning and learning” (Mullins, 1998, p. 165). The second reason these teachers chose to take these outdoor trips was that they acknowledged that their thinking on how learning takes place had changed after engaging in these environmentally based trips. They realized the worth of interactive learning and project-based learning where the students were involved in real-life projects. The third reason was simply because of the experiential benefits. They said that nature taught them how to teach; and that observing students attach with nature was their main purpose for having field trips. This study also reported that most of the experienced teachers all had positive field experiences as children.

While the literature concerning the factors motivating teachers to take field trips is informative, there is the absence of a clear picture of teachers who choose to frequently use the resources of informal science. Further, at a time when the majority of elementary teachers do not feel well-equipped and credible to teach science and are teaching less science (Horizon Research, 2001a), hearing from those elementary teachers that do feel confident in their ability to teach science and incorporate informal science in their teaching can inform this issue.

While many teachers will take their students on at least one field trip during the year, fewer will lead effective field trips where students gain both cognitively and affectively. Many teachers will use it as a form of leisure or will not amalgamate it into their curriculum (Lessow, 1990).

Support for Using Informal Science

Realizing how and why these teachers continually use informal science was the focal point of this study. And directly related to this is the support they receive for using informal science. An important result of this study is that the existence of support is indispensable to whether these teachers use the resources of informal science for the gain of their students. However, it is paramount that they have support. This can have significant effects on less experienced teachers. Mullins (1998) found that a teacher support system, either from peers or administrators, makes the distinction in whether a novice teacher chooses to pursue informal science opportunities.

A large portion of the required assistance for using informal science is budget. This is especially the case for taking students on field trips – which is the primary way in which these teachers – and most other teachers – tend to use informal science (Inverness Research Associates, 1995). The cost will be used for transportation and money for entrance fees. A school (or most often, the school district) allots a certain amount of field trips based on priorities and what can be afforded. These costs can be huge obstructions to teachers’ use of informal science. Teachers identified transportation costs as a major limiting factor to using informal science in studies by Lessow (1990) and Michie (1998). These two studies focused on teachers who did not necessarily use informal science on a regular basis. The teachers in those studies were accompanying their grade level on their allotted yearly field trips.

The teachers do not directly refer to money as a limiting factor. Kaspar (1998), in his survey of administrators and teachers in regards to the use of informal science, also found that more experienced teachers did not list administrative tasks and logistics as obstacles. The teachers are experts at navigating these barriers. While funding is always important to their use of informal science, these teachers talk more about the basis of the funding. Based on the teachers’ stories, they are more concerned with the emotional support they receive from these sources. This importance of administrator support is reflected in Mullins’ (1998) study where a lack of support by the school administration was one of the most frequently mentioned obstacles to taking field trips. This is further supported in a statement made by an experienced teacher who uses informal science regularly in her teaching.

Those teachers have to somehow have an administration that understands that a field trip is not just kids getting away from school; it’s not a play day. The administration has to understand that it is an extension of the classroom. Five hours on a field trip can be worth far more than five hours in the classroom. Administrations and school boards have to be able to see how field trips can positively impact grades and see that it’s okay to be different (Mullins, 1998, p. 134).

Further, administrative support has been described as being extremely important to teachers’ ability to effectively teach science (Ramey-Gassert et al., 1996). District and state current policy on science education likely affects some teachers’ use of informal science. This is especially true for Betty, who expresses how the de-emphasis on science and focus on passing the state standardized tests has hindered her teaching of science and use of informal science. None of the other teachers expressed this same sort of frustration. Teaching at a school in a low-income area where passing the tests was of major concern was likely an important factor. While Greg also teaches in a high-poverty school, he is somewhat protected due to his district-approved and specially funded science-focused classroom. Without administrative support of some kind, even a highly motivated teacher will find it difficult to do the things he/she would like to do with students in science inside or outside of the classroom.

Administrative support is narrated as a motivating factor in these teachers’ ability to use the resources of informal science – although to different degrees among them. A teacher in a small school in a large district relies heavily on principal support, while another in a large school in a smaller district relies mainly on district level support. Administrative support is likely to be especially significant for teachers in low-income areas. Without district support of non-profit program, most teachers would have difficulty involving their class in such an extensive off-campus project with an informal science site. The success of that program has largely been due to the collaborative nature of its beginnings and the community encouragement it has received. While the fact that most teachers do not discuss it does not mean that it has not been an essential factor, it is a factor that they may have taken for granted. This is the case in the higher-income schools where there tends to be more parent support for these trips and projects – especially in terms of funding. Parents, in turn, are able to financially support these projects and trips and since many mothers work at home, they can act as chaperones.

Surprisingly, there is little in the discussions on the importance of parent support in teachers’ use of informal community resources. The studies of teachers’ use of informal science tend to focus more specifically on the field trip and not the teachers themselves (e.g. Lessow, 1991; Michie, 1998; Mullins, 1998). Further, those studies focus on either experienced science teachers from all levels of education (Mullins, 1998) or on more typical teachers on a grade level field trip (Lessow, 1991; Michie, 1998). Yet, parent support was found to be a significant authority on all of the teachers in this study. Teachers realize the significant role that parents play in making that possible. When parents are not able to pinch as much due to financial limitations or work schedules, those teachers rely more heavily on administrative and outside support and must try harder to provide informal science experiences for their students.

Because the teachers in this study are often responsible for planning the field trips for their grade level, many of them express frustration at the negative attitudes of other teachers towards project involvement and science in general.

On a finding supported by Michie (1998), it shows that teachers reported some resentment from other teachers if they took students on field trips. However, in Michie’s study, the students were in secondary school. The teachers protested because students were taken out of class or were late for another class. The teachers in this study are experienced, science-oriented, curious teachers. And unfortunately, they are not the standard in the mentoring profession. They are more like the teachers in Mullins (1998) study, even though those teachers were mostly secondary-level teachers and college professors. They were clearly passionate about teaching science. Mullins (1998) found that the more experienced teachers reported fear within the teacher to be the most significant obstacle to teachers implementing field trips. One teacher said,

It’s just not familiar. Teachers need someone because most of them are troubled by the idea that they are in fact clueless as to what may transpire during fieldtrips. You’re likely to do things the way you’ve always done them unless you have some good reason to do something different…like if there is a real good program and someone suggests field trips and they take teachers out and then teachers say, “Oh, that’s not so hard, I can do this.” Teachers want to; they just don’t know what to do because we do so little of this in our teacher training programs (Mullins, 1998, p. 136).

While the teachers in this study have ultimately been responsible for their choice to use informal science in their teaching, they are the first to admit that it has required plenty of support – financial, logistical and emotional. All of these teachers claimed to require support to use informal science. It is not something they can easily do on their own. These teachers are excellent at “navigating the barriers” in terms of their use of informal science – whether it is simply rallying parent support despite a lack of funds, holding bake sales, or finding ways to bring informal science into their classroom. And if these teachers, who are clearly exemplary science teachers, require support and encouragement, then it is likely that other teachers need even more encouragement in using informal science. As mentioned earlier, the average elementary teacher is likely to feel apprehensive about teaching science, and will lack the confidence needed to seek out informal science opportunities. The exceptional teachers in this study often found this on their own – it was the emotional support that they needed in order to continue the pursuit of their science teaching goals. Based on my interpretations, providing more support for teachers in using informal science is a logical place to begin to focus energy so that more teachers are likely to look to these community resources.

Highlights of the Teachers’ Attitudes towards Conducting Science Field Trips

Field trips can be referred as one of the three ways through which science can be taught – through formal classroom teaching, practical work and field trips. In the United States teachers tend to use the term ‘field trip’ instead of ‘excursion’. There have been a number of challenges to define field trips. The definition used in most the researches is taken from Krepel and Duvall (1981): “a trip arranged by the school and undertaken for educational purposes, in which the students go to places where the materials of instruction may be observed and studied directly in their functional setting: for example, a trip to a factory, a city waterworks, a library, a museum etc.” (p. 7). The use of the term ‘field work’ emphasizes some of the formal exercises which are conducted outside of the classroom, usually in biology and geology at senior high school and tertiary levels. These activities may be referred to be a subset of field trips or excursions.

Much of the literature start off from museums and science centers, other noted venues such as zoos, aquariums, planetariums and field study or nature centers (see reviews such as Falk & Dierking, 1992; Ramey-Gassert, Walberg & Walberg, 1994; Rennie & McClafferty, 1995, 1996). It often relates a range of effects on visitors, rather than students per se,

Quantitative studies of the attitudes of teachers towards field trips were done and facilitated by Falk and Balling (1979), Fido and Gayford (1982) and Muse, Chiarelott and Davidman (1982). The researchers found that, in the opinion of teachers, the positive benefits derived from field trips were

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