Many of us have fond memories of the field trips that we took as children – perhaps a trip to the post office, ballet or local museum. We remember the excitement of walking through the hall of mummies or learning how letters move through the mail system; these kinds of experiences are so often ingrained in our minds not because they were merely fun days out of school, but because they were profound learning opportunities that connected us to our communities and the real world. In celebration of National Field Trip Month, it is worth exploring just why exactly field trips are so valuable to both students and the community and just how they foster an increase in science literacy across a student’s lifetime.
According to “The 95 Percent Solution”, a rather infamous 2010 report published by the journal American Scientist on out of school learning, non-school resources such as museums, zoos, parks, and even visits to the post office are where most science learning occurs. This makes sense. Most Americans spend less than 5% of their lives in school, meaning that the 95% of their lives spent outside of the classroom is where the rest of their science knowledge is accumulated. This knowledge comes from a variety of sources. They include but are not limited to: visiting informal learning institutions like museums, zoos and aquariums; engaging in science-minded hobbies like gardening and star gazing; watching science-based television programs; internet research; and being in nature. Research shows that free-choice learning represents the greatest single contributor to adult knowledge. One example of the power of out of school learning was observed at the California Science Center, where researchers found that acquired knowledge not only stayed with visitors, but increased their conceptual understanding of science for two years or more after the experience.
This type of learning important for adults, but even more so for children. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that not only do these experiences start a child’s long-term interest in science, but they can significantly increase scientific literacy in populations that are typically under-represented in science. Field trips provide just the type of free-choice learning that research asserts is particularly effective. They not only reinforce topics taught in school, but have the potential to create a vibrant spark in a student that lasts his whole life. Allowing students the freedom to develop and explore an individual interest in science topics is a sure way to create a life-long learner.
Additionally, field trips are not just a chance to learn, but a time to explore the community that supports the school. Whether it is an informal learning institution, a local utility or service, a government organization or a natural area, all of these places exist for their citizens. They want to be a resource for teachers and students, helping to give children the educational experiences that they need to be successful. David Sobel, in his book Place-based Education, advocates for using the local community and environment as a starting place to teach concepts across the curriculum, especially science and ecology. He asserts that connecting to the community and emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences not only increases overall academic achievement, but also helps students develop strong ties to their community, increases their appreciation for the natural world and creates a heightened commitment to community involvement. Beyond these effects on students, Sobel also writes that taking students into the community will make local business, politicians and organizations more likely to come into the classroom and create an open exchange of ideas between both parties. This deeper connection opens the classroom walls and creates rich avenues for learning. Field trips represent a greater opportunity for all students to become a part of the world around them.
As part of the larger urban learning network of Pittsburgh, we are honored to provide the opportunity for students to engage with both local and exotic environments. Field trips at Phipps try to not only inspire a life-long interest in plants and the environment, but to connect each student to the natural world. In our classroom, students use flashlights to study the inner workings of worms, dissect seeds, and smell fragrant tropical spices. They can wander through tropical and desert biomes, be surrounded by butterflies and take a sensory journey through the heart of our Indian forest. We strive to provide a positive, nature-based experience for each of our students that provokes them to look a little deeper at and ask questions about the world around them. Each field trip program gives us the opportunity to plant the seeds for future naturalists, explorers, scientists and civically-engaged citizens.
Field trips represent an opportunity for the entire community to engage in the educational process together. They are critically important to creating life-long learners, in science and beyond. In this time of shrinking budgets and increased teacher responsibilities, it is important to remember getting students outside of their classroom is not just a privilege, but an imperative.
To read the entire report, “The 95 Percent Solution”, you can download a copy of the article here.
Read an excerpt of Place Based Education. Learn more about David Sobel’s other works here.
To learn more about Phipps field trips, check out our School Program Spotlights.
The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.