Extreme Field Trips: LEADing the Way

By Martin Storksdieck, Diana Robbins and Sandy Kreisman
August, 2007

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Summary: University Circle Inc. (UCI) has assumed a leadership role in investigating field trip issues and improving field trip practice in Cleveland through a variety of partnership collaborations. The Linking Education and Discovery (LEAD) program has established many characteristics for quality field trips in Cleveland, and through it, UCI has developed a program structure that is conducive to best practices, joint learning, and improvement for all stakeholders. As well, this program allows UCI the flexibility to transfer its leadership position in the field trip arena to after-school, family, and senior programs. UCI has served as both the “catalyst” and the “glue” for various stakeholders and has extended its communication efforts to include the broader community, including events for families and other activities to stimulate deeper communication and sharing between the organization and the many audiences it serves.

LEAD Assessment Project
When it was time to assess how the LEAD program had served its constituents—including institutions and schools—The Institute for Learning Innovation was engaged to collaborate on a comprehensive study that would benefit not only UCI and its member institutions, but the entire field of museum education. In FY 2004-2005, UCI’s Community Education Department initiated the LEAD Assessment
Project—Redefining the Field Trip.

The driving forces for this research project responded to the following trends in our field:

  • Field trips have been questioned in many school districts due to a lack of  understanding about the perceived value of out-of-school experiences for students.
  • Numbers of students attending field trip programs are declining each year.
  • Standards-based alignment and testing are reshaping how education takes place in K-12 schools over the past decade.
  • Field trip practice needs to evolve and better reflect educational practice, including a more purposeful integration into the classroom.
  • Training and practices in museum education and cultural education programs are changing.

Evaluation plays a significant role in UCI’s work, and to that end, we desired to construct a comprehensive assessment framework consisting of focus groups, observations, and target surveys. Because it has always been challenging for cultural institutions to evaluate the educational impact of single field trip experiences, we decided to take an alternate approach to this work. UCI’s Community Education Department desired to determine the shared quality characteristics that both cultural educators and teachers want integrated into field trips that are offered through the LEAD field trip program. As such, the study’s methodologies began with one essential question:

What identifying conditions need to exist or be present for learning to take place during a field trip experience?

The study involved separate focus groups for educators, administrators, museum education directors, and museum educators; pre/post assessments of teacher field trip expectations; and observations by trained graduate students of on-site field trips. The following year (2005-2006), a second companion study was conducted with suburban school districts to account for differences in demographics and variance in teacher expectations. In addition to the survey, UCI conducted a small pilot program that tested how videoconferencing could be used to prepare and follow up on field trips. The study involved two cultural institutions and was assessed through focus groups with participating museum educators and teachers.

Data was gathered over the course of two years from a variety of sources using multiple methods. A comprehensive literature review was followed by a series of eight focus groups with major stakeholders (teachers, principals, educators from various cultural institutions, program directors from these institutions, and researchers) to develop criteria for quality field trips based on local stakeholders’ perspectives. The study’s scope included 13 University Circle cultural institutions, 25 Cleveland innercity schools, 92 private and public suburban schools, 490 teachers, 59 museum educators, 10 museum education directors, and eight school principals.

The resulting quality field trip model blended the results of the literature review and the focus group discussions, forming the basis for a pre/post, closed-ended teacher questionnaire. A similar instrument was designed for educators from cultural institutions to assess their field trip offerings. Two independent observers validated teacher and educator self-reported data for a triangulated data set. In the initial urban study, 150 matched pre/post teacher surveys, 59 museum educator surveys, and 28 observations that were linked to matched teacher surveys were collected and analyzed. In the suburban companion study, 92 teacher post-only surveys were collected and analyzed.

The stakeholder analysis (focus group results) revealed that although various stakeholder groups differed somewhat in their priorities and importance of objectives, there was a large overlap in the characteristics of—and the objectives for—quality field trips. Principals focused on creating links between the field trip content and the school curriculum; teachers felt that quality field trips must run smoothly in terms of planning and logistics; while museum educators sought first and foremost to provide experiences that were hands-on and authentic and which reflected their venues.

Teachers strongly indicated that field trips served multiple purposes and that they had multiple goals for the specific field trip they participated in as part of UCI’s LEAD program. Teachers rated the affective goals of having a positive, memorable experience higher than learning-related goals, indicating that the affective experience was just as important—if not more important—as having their students learn content related to their classroom curriculum. While there were some differences between teachers and museum educators on the importance of specific goals, museum educators designed their field trip programs to meet multiple goals and generally agreed with teachers about the importance of each of these goals.

Whereas museum educators placed a greater importance on conducting a variety of preparation activities, teachers tended to complete only limited or low-level preparation for both themselves and their students. They conducted activities that were easily available and barrier-free. While preparation activities were often limited, teachers indicated that they provided their students with orientation at a level consistent with what museum educators identify as important. Similarly, follow-up activities tended to be low-level and informal, rather than strongly linked to the classroom and home. In part, this may be due to the limited resources offered by museums for follow-up.

There was some disparity among museum educators, teachers, and observers about the types and frequency of various activities taking place during the field trip. In general, museum educators were inclined to see their field trips as more varied than teachers, indicating that the ideal design of a field trip program may not always play out in practice. In general, field trips for lower elementary-age students offered more opportunity for hands-on and unstructured activities than those designed for older students.

As stated above, teachers reported a very high level of satisfaction with the field trip experiences provided through the LEAD program. Teachers typically felt that their expectations were being met, that the quality and quantity of material exceeded what was used in a typical classroom experience, that their students were engaged and interested, and that the museum staff was effective at a range of skills. However, the data also indicated some potential areas for improvement, particularly in serving middle school and students with lower academic skills (as identified by teachers).

Chaperones and teachers appeared to be underutilized during field trips, being used primarily as behavior monitors rather than as educators. Field trip practice suggests a large potential for improvement in this area.

The pilot study on using videoconferencing for field trip preparation and follow-up revealed a series of usability and technical issues that need to be addressed if this technology should be made available widely. However, it also provided strong evidence for the enormous potential that technology has to address some of the issues that prevent better integration of field trips into school learning.
The evaluation project resulted in a range of suggestions for improving field trip practices in Cleveland and elsewhere. As such, The Institute for Learning Innovation and UCI felt that addressing the research and layered aspects of field trip practice with colleagues at a summit was a worthwhile endeavor for both organizations.

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