ARCHIVED—Take me to the river...
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Bishop Pinkham Junior High School
Louis Riel School
John Dupuis and Cal Kullman recognize the special appeal and unique learning potential of school field trips. At the same time, they understand that a successful field trip does not just happen. They know that carefully detailed planning that includes the needs of teachers and students, an awareness of both the potential and the limitations of the field environment, and a clearly defined curriculum objective and pilot program to develop and refine the trip are necessary ingredients in the design of a field trip.
Mr. Dupuis and Mr. Kullman have developed a procedure to create successful and memorable field trips for junior high school science students. After running these trips with their classes, they share their expertise with students and teachers from other schools in Alberta by creating a complete field trip package of classroom materials, necessary equipment, suggested route and schedule of activities.
Through our experience in a number of teaching environments in and out of the school system, we believe that experiential learning is one of our most powerful teaching styles. Experiential education centres on providing real-world, hands-on experiences and adventures that engage students. If we teach in the context of an environmental or science topic, the students see it first hand, and they then have a better grasp of the concept and appreciate how it affects them.
Our students range from grades 7 through 11, from 12- to 17-years-old. Kids tend to be very social and self-centred at this age, yet they respond well to idealism and grand causes. They enjoy physical challenges and learn best from concrete experiences. A field trip is a great way to combine the need for peer interaction, physical activity and fun in this age group while encouraging safety, scientific testing procedures and environmental awareness.
We design our field trips to be adventures wrapped around science. When parents or friends ask students what they are going to be doing on the trip, they inevitably say, "Oh, we're going rafting on the river." Only later do they remember that they are also going to be conducting water quality tests. The adventure gets their interest focussed and their minds ready to learn the science.
All through the process of developing a curriculum-based field trip package, we use the experience of our own classes to experiment, reassess and refine the trip's effectiveness before we share it with other teachers. We always keep in mind the needs of our two "clients" — the teachers and the students.
One focus of the field trip design process is to dovetail with current core curriculum and make a teacher's job easier. A quality field experience embodies a specific curriculum objective. Our River Watch trips are a good example. In these trips, students travel down a local river, testing water quality and observing the environmental impact of human development along the way. We created this activity in response to a unit on environmental quality in the Alberta Grade 9 science curriculum. Teachers tended to rush through this unit because they were not really sure how to approach it and the required testing equipment was often not available in schools.
We looked for a real-life application of the concepts and processes we wanted to teach, and thought of ways to observe and measure it. Then, we sought out the advice of water-quality technicians at a fish hatchery and a wastewater treatment plant. During brief tours of these facilities, students meet professionals concerned with water quality and who use the same testing equipment available in our rafts. Students feel that they are involved in "real science" and that their data collection will be valued and useful. Consequently, they make a real effort to conduct careful observations and become self-directed technicians at subsequent sampling sites.
Our second design focus is to capture the students' attention with a continuous, consistent experience. For the water-quality unit, we could have simply set up a bus trip to several sites along the river. But travelling down the river on rafts gives students a better sense of what the river is like, gives them an important component of physical activity, and makes it fun. As much as possible, we plan on going to one place and working from there rather than breaking up the day, and the students' attention, with several trips on the bus. So, we borrowed water-sampling equipment, rented life jackets, paddles and rafts and created an initial field trip for our own classes. From that experience we developed the River Watch program.
For a unit on environmental interactions in Grade 8 science, we have designed a field trip called Wildlife Watch, combining snowshoeing and a visit with a practising wildlife biologist. For example, if students are visiting a wolf biologist they may get a chance to visit an old wolf kill site and see for themselves that wolves play an important role in providing food for many other species. Biologists estimate that more than 20 other species feed on wolf kill sites, especially in the winter. If a member of the local pack is radio-collared, students can participate in locating the animal by using a directional antenna. Rafting Illustration
Some field trips are more equipment-intensive than others. Creating field trip packages as we have done, with one set of equipment used over and over, reduces the costs for everyone. We rent equipment if it is not readily available from the school or school board. With a larger program, we might approach potential sponsors and get grants to keep costs manageable. We use grants for capital equipment purchases and use student fees to cover ongoing costs for on-site staff wages, vehicle rentals, insurance, advertising, phone calls and classroom materials.
Safety is always important. A River Watch trip begins with a lecture on water safety and managing the rafts; then we outfit everyone with life jackets and rain gear. Each raft, which holds 15 people, is equipped with a first aid kit and rescue gear. We take a cell phone on each trip so that we can call in outside help if necessary. Each student is expected to bring a daypack with extra clothing, food, drinks and sun screen.
The pilot field trips showed us how many activities we could include without exhausting the students' attention. Three testing stops by raft, in addition to the water safety talk and a brief tour of the water treatment plant, seem to be all the kids can manage. A group of 10 to 15 students to each adult seems to create a supportive learning environment and manageable group size.
There are a few more things to consider in the planning process. First, avoid spending more time on the field trip than you need. Many facilities book groups for two-night weekends, when the actual field trip activities only last for six to eight hours. Why not keep it to a day trip then? Keep it local, too. A trip to a downtown river, or wooded area 15 minutes away has as much potential for worthwhile observations and activities of environmental awareness, human impact and science as a mountain or wilderness area hours away. We recommend avoiding any activities, such as simulation games, that could be done just as well in the classroom or school yard. Our field trips provide a learning environment that cannot be duplicated in a classroom, textbook or virtual environment.
Education in the real world is valued by students and parents, and the funding for a quality experience can always be found through fees, fundraising, sponsorship or scholarship. Make sure that you charge enough for the trip! Nothing is worse than setting up a field trip only to find that you are $200 short. Costs to consider include transportation, an honorarium for any lecturers, subsidies and rental costs. A contingency of 5 to 10 percent takes care of all the little details that get overlooked, but centralizing all the necessary equipment for a curriculum-based field trip significantly reduces the cost per student. The contingency percentage charged to all students can also be used to subsidize several economically disadvantaged classmates.
With the design and logistical planning done, we set out to promote the field trip program to both students and teachers. We visit conferences and run workshops about the River Watch trip for teachers, demonstrating how it fits into the curriculum, that it is not an add-on, and that it covers core curriculum material. We send a brochure around to every teacher teaching science, environmental awareness and outdoor activity in the city. The teachers get a great day of learning already prepared. All they have to do is book a bus and sign up.
We also need to promote the field trip idea to the students because if they are not excited, their parents will never hear about it. Teachers working with their students are the best vehicle to generate enthusiasm. So, we visit classrooms to talk about the trips. The class hears about the adventure and the science, and is usually pretty keyed up by the time we finish our presentation.
Part of promoting the idea is the package of materials and handouts we supply to each teacher. This includes a video and a newsletter template, ready for the school's crest and the field trip dates, already containing all the information parents need to know to prepare their child for the trip. Depending on the trip, this newsletter may run eight or nine pages. It finishes with a permission sheet for parents to sign.
As we developed River Watch, we created a binder of classroom-ready material that we send teachers a week or two before their trip. In it are pre- and post-trip worksheets, problems about fish and water, and quizzes. We reproduced a series of newspaper articles covering a recent controversy over water usage as reading material with a list of questions to answer. There are a variety of activities, enough to suit every ability or learning style.
All this material helps a teacher prepare his or her class for the trip. So when the students arrive, they know what to expect, and they're ready to learn the science we're going to be doing that day. All the planning comes together to create an engaging learning experience and some great memories.
We know a field trip is successful when we see the students excited about learning, when they do well on follow-up tests, and when parents tell us how much their children talk about it. Our field trips are so popular they are used as incentives by other teachers to ensure their students complete their class assignments and homework!