By Dave Douglass
Things to consider when dreaming-up, organizing,
planning and leading field trips and other learning activities which
take place outside of the traditional classroom setting.
The outside-the-classroom learning experience, commonly
known as a "field trip", is a type of experiential learning
which get students away from the traditional classroom setting and into
a new environment. It can be as simple as taking the class out on to
the campus for a drawing exercise, or as elaborate as planning an extended
overnight field trip in the woods. In the extreme, out-of-classroom
experiences can include summer field camps, extended stays at research
stations and even a semester abroad.
The potential benefits for teaching outside the
classroom can be enormous. Putting a class into a different physical
setting generates a bond among class members and creates a learning
community. Sometimes simply getting to the field trip destination is
an opportunity for students to get to know each other, as well as their
instructor. Active field trips can also offer unprecedented opportunities
for experiential learning, which almost always has a more lasting impact
than a classroom lecture, regardless of how good the lecturer is. How
can any classroom lecture on wastewater treatment compare to the sight,
sounds and smells of actually visiting a sewage treatment plant?
Things to consider when putting together a field
Creative: A field trip doesnt
have to involve complicated logistics, great expense or even a bus.
It might simply involve taking your trigonometry class out to the
front of the school to calculate the height of the flagpole using
a transit. Simply breaking up the routine by going somewhere else
to learn is worth doing.
Many college campuses have a variety of resources
that can be enlisted for learning. For example, our campus has the
Mirror Pools very large, rectangular pools of water 6-inches
deep. For art courses, these become the subjects of perspective drawings.
For oceanography courses, they make great wave tanks. Students love
to see the instructor splashing around in ankle deep water demonstrating
reflection, refraction and wave dispersion.
Other obvious on-campus resources include galleries,
museums, displays, public artwork, playing fields, murals, outdoor
amphitheaters, parking structures, cactus gardens etc. Be aware however,
that administrators generally frown on taking students on the roof,
near moving cars, or doing other things that might appear dangerous
to the casual, untrained observer.
If you cant meet your field trip learning
objectives on campus, then dont be afraid to consider places
off campus. This, of course, introduces a whole new dimension in planning,
paperwork and permission
It also unleashes an infinite number
of possibilities for providing your students with outstanding learning
Keep it Simple:
There are many different kinds of
field trips ranging from brief forays outside the classroom to spending
an entire semester abroad. Consider the following hierarchy of out-of-classroom
- On-campus trips during class time
A lot to be said for this. Requires minimal planning or paperwork
- Off-campus trips during class time
Usually requires some planning
and paperwork, but still pretty simple and easy to accomplish.
- Day trips
- Usually these trips extend beyond normal class time. They often
require paper work such as transportation requests, liability and
medical release forms. They also require careful planning and thoughtful
integration into the curriculum.
- Overnight trips
- In addition to all of the above, overnight trips also requiring
food and shelter in addition to the course work.
- Extended overnight trips
All the above plus several days worth of food, shelter and
- Semesters Abroad
Not for the faint at heart.
It is one thing to be a savvy traveler yourself. It is another completely
different experience to take a group of students thousands of miles
away from home for an extended period of time.
If you are new to field trips, you might want
to start somewhere near the top of the list and work down. We urge
great caution, to anyone wanting to take students far away from civilization
for an extended period of time. Recent research has show that students
are becoming less and less comfortable going "out of cell phone
range". Extended trips are definitely not for everyone. That
being said, they can often be one of the most rewarding experiences
an instructor or student may ever have. And the experience almost
always lasts a lifetime.
it Appropriate: It is important
to tie in any out-of-classroom experience closely to the course content.
Administrators hate it when they think instructors are going on a
boondoggle. But far more important than what administrators think,
the students resent it when the instructor makes them do something
that seems irrelevant. This is true for classroom work as well as
being outside the classroom. Its just that outside the classroom
the whining and disgruntlement will be amplified and harder to escape.
While planning your trip, think carefully about
what the students will be doing and learning while on the trip. What
kinds of activities will they be engaged in besides hiking, breathing
hard and sweating? How will their participation be assessed or evaluated?
How will students be held accountable for what they have learned?
And most importantly, how will this be tied back into to further work
in the classroom.
Will your students be interacting with anyone,
such as tourists or other people passing by, or anything, such as
wildlife or poison ivy, while on the trip? Both kinds of interaction
can be valuable and/or traumatic learning experiences. For example,
we purposely have oceanography field students measure beach profiles
when other people are around. Having to explain to someone what
you are doing and why you are doing it is an extremely valuable
learning opportunity. Likewise, we try to prevent our students from
learning about poisonous plants first hand. For example, I have personally
and inadvertently demonstrated the hazards of touching poison oak
to many of my classes over the years at great personal discomfort
I might add.
Make it Pedagogically Sound: Any
field trip should "make sense" from a learning standpoint.
Remember physical activity is not necessarily the same as mental engagement.
Most field trips, and here we are thinking about a typical one-day
outing, involve going somewhere relevant to the topic under discussion
in the course and having the students actively make observations,
record information, gather data or otherwise engage in the subject
Experience has shown that the best field trips
also involve some classroom preparation before going on the trip,
as well as some classroom follow-up or de-briefing. Pre- and Post-trip
class work is necessary to successfully weave the field experience
fully into the content of the course. Otherwise, the field trip might
just be another isolated student experience disconnected from the
Plan, Plan, Plan: In
real estate its location, location, location. However with field trips,
it is far more important to have a good plan for your trip rather
than a spectacular site to visit. You can take a meaningful, highly
educational field trip to a vacant lot if you have a good plan.
Careful planning can make a field trip succeed almost regardless of
uncontrollable circumstances such as weather. You might be able to
"wing it" in the classroom, but dealing with a group of
cold, wet and hungry students on a rained-out field trip takes some
forethought. Lack of careful planning can result in disaster (literally)
and can be dangerous.
The flip side to careful planning is flexibility.
Have a good plan but dont be bound by it. Many things can happen
in the uncontrolled environment outside the classroom. Transportation
problems, inclement weather and unexpected closures are not infrequent
events on field trips. Therefore having a "back-up plan"
is highly recommended. Occasionally what might seem like an inconvenient
delay or change of plans might turn into a learning opportunity. Once
we were stopped for an hour or so in the middle of no-where between
Escalante Utah and Capitol Reef National Park while the highway department
did some road repair. The delay turned into a detailed lecture of
geological engineering and road building culminated by the spectacular
sight of half the hillside being dynamited away. Later students recalled
this as one of the highlights of the trip.
Consider the following checklist when planning
a field trip:
- Think about
what it is you want to accomplish by going outside the classroom.
- Develop a lesson plan,
even if its just in your head, which envisions what you will
be doing, what the students will be doing and what will be the outcome
of the trip. Develop a back-up plan in case something goes astray.
- Select a location that will address
your educational goals and will be accessible given time, transportation
and cost restraints.
- Dry-run the
trip. Visit the site or locations you plan on visiting with your
class. Go through, in your mind, what you will say and do at each
stop. Note the travel times between destinations, and be sure to
allow for changes in traffic patterns. It might a lot less time
to go from you school to your destination on the weekend than during
the middle of rush hour.
- Take care of logistics by
calling or visiting ahead of time. Procure money for admission fees,
get a fee wavier, or let the students know ahead of time what they
will be expected to pay for. Make transportation arrangements as
soon as youve decided on a destination.
- Do the paperwork in
plenty of time to meet the requirements of your institution. For
example, at my institution all field trips outside of the county
must be board reported. This means truck loads of paperwork has
to be done weeks ahead of time.
- Inform the students, verbally
and in writing, regarding the details of the trip. Include important
information such as where to meet, how to dress, what to bring and
what not to bring, how much the trip is going to going to cost them,
what to do if its raining and what will be expected of them
while on the trip. For extended overnight trips, this sometimes
takes an hour or two! Have the students fill out all the forms required
by your institution ahead of time so you can maximize the time spent
in the field. See the "Sample Syllabus" and "Zen
Camping" at the end of this document for examples.
- Make a checklist of
any equipment, gear or teaching materials you will need to bring
on the trip. Look over your checklist after the trip to see what
you forgot, or what might be added for next time. See "Sample
Checklist" at the end of this document for an example.
- Start on time. Dont
wait more that 10 minutes for students who are late for the beginning
of the trip. It sets a bad precedent, and your field trip will probably
be better off without them. Also, do your best to get back on time
the students will appreciate it.
Some creative field trips for different disciplines
- Anthropology Visits to the zoo or local
museums can be important. However you might consider taking students
to a modern "site", such as a remote roadside turn out,
where they must gather information and evidence in order to deduce
what kind of people might occupy the site and which kind of activities
might take place there.
- Architecture Take students to real sites
to give them realistic design and building challenges. These trips
can be done in conjunction with other disciplines such as biology,
geology, business or environmental studies.
- Astronomy Seeing the rings of Saturn
for the first time through a telescope, or even a good pair of binoculars,
is absolutely thrilling. Grab a star chart and head for somewhere
- Biology Biology students can often be
found tramping off to the local mountains to sample and document
plant populations. Data gathered in the field can then be taken
back to the classroom for population study and statistical analysis.
- Environmental Studies Your local waste
water treatment plant or near-by landfill makes as excellent field
trip your students wont soon forget. For example, see http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/envsci
- English as a Second Language Take ESL
students on an overnight camping trip. Have them work together
to plan for the trip, by and prepare food, set up tents etc. Insist
that all communication take place in English, and have them do
reflective writing on their experiences. For example, a trip can
have water as its theme, and involve visiting several sites critical
to the history of water in Southern California.
- Foreign Languages - Exceptional opportunities
exist for study abroad, however consider paring your course with
a content course, such as art or humanities, geared towards the
country being visited.
- Geography Use technology tools such
as Global Positioning System instruments to connect real-world spatial
problems to maps and Geographic Information System databases. Nothing
is more relevant to a student than data they have collected themselves.
- Geology These folks have been doing
field trips for ages
a good place to go for ideas and help
organizing extended field trips. For example, see http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/instadmn/physcidv/geol_dp/dndougla/WYO97HP/WYO97HP.htm
this web site was created on the fly, using laptops and computers
in the field during a 16 day trip to the Rocky Mountains.
- Oceanography Train students in the classroom
to use basic field equipment such as survey levels, GPS receivers,
digital cameras, water samplers, sand sieves etc. Then take them
to local beaches and have them "document" the state
of the shore line. This data can them be archived on the Internet
for comparison to past and future classes. See http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/oceans
for an example of how students have collected data in the
field, and used the web to document their research.
- Photography Large format photography
classes have taken their classes to the White Mountains of California
to photograph Bristle-Cone Pines, the oldest living things on earth.
PEDAGOGICAL OBJECTIVES AND LEARNING STYLES
How field trips specifically address pedagogical
Learning: Students learn better when
they are actively engaged in the learning process, and field trips
often force students to be engaged with the subject matter. Its hard
not to think about mountains and topography and gravity while climbing
up the side of a mountain. Its hard to avoid speaking Spanish
when you are studying abroad in Costa Rica. And its hard not to appreciate
art when staring face-to-face with a real Picasso.
Going on a field trip takes an investment of effort
on the part of the learner. In this age of instant bombardment of
information from a multitude of media sources, students have become
highly skilled passive receptors. On a field trip, learning becomes
student initiated and student based. Students take on responsibility
for their own learning by directly engaging with the subject matter.
Upon reflection, most students look fondly on field trips and consider
them some of the richest learning experiences they have ever had.
Promote Critical Thinking: One
thing students have to do on overnight field trips is to solve problems.
If the material covered during the day hasnt challenged their
minds enough, are always those little things like providing their
own food and shelter to jar students back into reality. Ill
never forget the time that a student, after spending 10 minutes showing
me his brothers deluxe Swiss Army knife with 47 different tools
and attachments, returned a few minutes later in a panic to ask me
how he was going to open his can of beans without an electric can
Learning Styles: Field
trips are especially appealing to visual and active learners. However
physical activity does not necessarily equal mental engagement. On
geology field trips we make students write, sketch, use maps and take
notes while listening to lectures and working out problems in the
field. In most cases, cleverly designed problems and curriculum materials
such as field guides and work sheets, usually provide something for
Communities: The mere act of
piling on to a bus and going somewhere builds community. Curiously
however, the more challenging the trip, the stronger the learning
community becomes. There is nothing better than a good life-threatening
experience to bond a group together (although this is NOT a recommended
strategy). However, challenge means different things to different
people. What may seem like a routine rafting trip to an experienced
instructor might be the unforgettable experience of a lifetime for
a group of students.
Relationships can develop on field trips that
can last a lifetime. If students must depend on each other to get
their field-work done, to keep from getting hopelessly lost, to get
their tent set up so they can get out of the rain, or to cook their
own food, they truly become connected. Conversations around the campfire
at night while on field trips suggest that students learn a lot about
living in close quarters with others, getting along in society and
what truly matter in life.
Build Skills: For
some disciplines, field work is essential for building skills. For
example, in the geological sciences most students must complete five
or six weeks of summer field camp before graduating with a bachelors
degree. The skills of observation and mapping must be acquired in
the field, there simply is no good alternative. However for many other
disciplines there is also great benefit in getting students out I
the real world, with real problems and real people. Field trips are
an important way to accomplish these goals.
Convey Knowledge: "Nature
is the best teacher." - Unknown
Things to watch out for
when teaching outside the classroom
- Keep track of everyone Count
the students each time you get back on the bus!
- Stick Together Especially if
traveling in caravan (taking multiple private cars)
- Avoid dangerous areas and/or dangerous
- Try not to piss people off
- Respect other peoples property,
privacy and space
- Choose your drivers wisely
- Give good, easy to follow directions
to each driver in writing
- Never underestimate peoples ability
to get lost
- Dont forget the First Aid Kit
- Wake the students up early
- Tire them out during the day
- Keep 'em busy at night
- Camp as far away from bars and liquor
stores as possible
- Make the experience meaningful to the
- Make the experience fun and enjoyable
for the students
- Wash the mud off the vans before you
bring them back.