Evaluating the Effectiveness of Science Field Trips and Hands-on Classroom Activities

Sponsor: Maria Mitchell Association
Sponsor Liaison: Janet E. Schulte, Executive Director MMA
Student Team: Jetta Rose Garrity, Kellen C. Pastore, and Allison Ruth Roche
Abstract: This report presents an evaluation of the effectiveness of science field trips and hands-on classroom activities offered and coordinated by the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA). Through our analysis of focus groups, interviews, observations, and surveys, we conclude that the programs are effective in meeting the goals of local teachers. Nevertheless, we make several recommendations, including the implementation of a teacher-provider summit and other professional development activities. We developed a quick and easy evaluation tool for the MMA to gauge the relative success of future field trips and to identify how to improve them.
Link: MMA_Final_Report

Executive Summary

Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields are becoming increasingly important in the modern world. Unfortunately, the number of professionals entering these fields in the United States has stagnated, while it continues to rise in other countries. Research shows that collaboration between formal and informal learning experiences can promote increased engagement in science learning. So, many informal education institutions including science museums have created outreach programs in a joint effort with schools to bolster an interest and enthusiasm for STEM careers from an early age. On Nantucket Island, the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) offers many programs of this nature to the general public and to the schools.

In the fall of 2009, the MMA received a grant from the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation to develop a Nantucket-themed K-5 Science Curriculum at the Nantucket Elementary School (NES), involving field trips and other hands-on classroom activities. The scope of the programs includes field trips directed by MMA staff that take place on the MMA campus, off-site on the island, and in the classrooms, as well as field trips directed by other third-party professionals after MMA facilitated contact between these individuals and the teachers. The overall goal of this project was to evaluate the science programs provided by the MMA, and those facilitated by the MMA for other program providers, for grades K-5 of the Nantucket Elementary School. The five crucial objectives involved in the pursuit of this goal were to characterize the K-5 programs offered by MMA, evaluate whether these programs meet the needs and expectations of the teachers, acquire perspectives of field trip providers, obtain alternative perspectives on field trips from other interested parties, and finally develop an evaluation tool for future use by the MMA.

Through focus group sessions with the teachers of each grade level team at NES, the project team assessed their opinions on the MMA‟s current programs and on the importance of field trip experiences in general. The feedback was almost entirely positive, and all teachers agreed that field trips provide valuable hands-on learning opportunities that enable students to make stronger connections and understand “real world” applications of the classroom concepts, but the content of the field trip must be closely tied to curriculum content for teachers and administration to approve. Funding the field trips poses a serious challenge for the school system, especially during a time of budgetary cutbacks. Some teachers expressed a willingness to participate in field trips regardless of the provider‟s ability to fund transportation due to the educational value they deliver, while others simply explained that if the field trips were not funded elsewhere, the school could not afford to participate.

A series of interviews with field trip providers gave insight into their goals and motives for delivering these programs, their thoughts on the effectiveness, and their background and experience in the field. The field trip providers we interviewed included both MMA staff and outside professionals who host field trip programs. Since no provider had formal training in education in general, or delivering field trips in particular, they tended to rely on personal enjoyment and self-motivation to strive to improve the educational value and effectiveness of their own programs. Several providers mentioned that they enjoy working with the students, they want to share their expertise and passion for their respective fields, and that they used parenting experience as a guideline for how to act with children. A common finding between all the providers was the lack of communication with the teachers before a field trip about specific goals and recent lesson plans in the classroom. More knowledge in these areas would enable the field trip providers to better understand the context of the field trip within the curriculum and lesson plan schedule of the class, as well as tailor the program to fit each class as desired.

In addition to teachers and field trip providers, we gathered the perspectives of other relevant parties and community members, including NES parents, funding entities, and other museum education professionals. A survey distributed to all NES parents yielded 73 responses, a 12% response rate. Every respondent valued field trips and felt that they were important to their children‟s education. The responses explaining why field trips are valuable had four main emphases: (1) education value in general, (2) community involvement, (3) learning science, and (4) having fun. In addition to the survey, we conducted interviews with professionals involved in the field but not in the MMA program, as well as the chair of and MMA‟s current funding source. The MMA received a grant from the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation to initiate the Nantucket-based Science Curriculum program with NES, so we interviewed the chair of the Grants Committee for her opinion on the program. The Grants chair fully supports field trips and considers them a valuable supplement to classroom learning, but explained that she could not make any further comment on the success of the program without “proof” of its value, and its positive effect on the students‟ learning. Other interviews with the Director of Outreach and Special Programs at the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) and the Education Director at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History provided examples for us to inspire recommendations for the MMA. The NHA held a Diversity Festival in October, 2010 in an attempt to embrace the minority populations of Nantucket, by offering free admission and running their regular tours at the Whaling Museum in Spanish, Portuguese, and Bulgarian. The festival was well attended, and was made possible by volunteers acquired by the NHA‟s Diversity Committee. These volunteers translated and delivered the hourly tours in the three languages. Similarly, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History (CCMNH) relies on volunteers to lead their daily programs and field trips. The CCMNH hosts 43 schools per year for their standard field trip program, which can be tailored specifically to certain teachers upon request. This communication happens between the teacher and the Education Director, who then relays the requests to the host for that day. The CCMNH continually evaluates its programs through visitor surveys and teacher surveys.

The Grade Four classes from NES visited Sankaty Bluff for a field trip with Andrew McKenna-Foster of the MMA. The field trip involved walking the beach, identifying sites of erosion on the cliff, observing rocks and sand with magnifying glasses, and finding a rock to use for future analysis in class, all as a part of the Geology unit. We observed three of the four field trips, focusing our attention on how engaged the students were, whether they asked questions about the curriculum content and the activities, and when they became distracted. After the first day, new rules were instated so that the students would stay more under control, and stricter boundaries were set during the rock-hunting activities so there were fewer wanderers. Over all three days, students were energetic, and excited to be outside and have the experience of being geologists for the day. Depending on the teacher‟s input, some students made more connections with pre-trip activities than others. One teacher in particular reminded her students about a book they had read before the field trip and about their goals for afterward. This class was the most focused of the three, and the least distracted by off-task behaviors and conversations. But overall during the three field trips, students were engaged in the activities and seemed to enjoy searching for and identifying sites of erosion, as well as using the geological vocabulary from the classroom.

Through interviews with field trip providers and teachers alike, preparation and communication are consistently mentioned as important steps toward a more beneficial field trip experience. In fact, the field trip providers who visited the classrooms before the field trip for an introduction to the topic were well received by both the teachers and the students. Andrew McKenna-Foster did just this before the Sankaty Bluff field trips, and got the students interested and excited to find rocks like the one he brought into the class during a pre-trip visit. Typically, there is minimal communication of goals between the teacher and the field trip provider, aside from scheduling and the general curriculum topics. We found that 80% of field trip providers involved with NES would prefer more specific details regarding the pre-trip activities and lesson plans of each individual class. In the focus groups, some teachers mentioned a desire for more information about available field trips. Several mentioned that they appreciate and value field trips, and would like their classes to participate in more of them, but are unaware of the opportunities that exist on the island and through the MMA. These conclusions all related to the general lack of communication between teachers and field trip providers.

Ultimately, we recommended that:

  • The school administration and field trip providers continue their efforts to offer field trips to the students, and maintain their programs even through economically challenging times;
  • The field trip providers and teachers communicate more often with each other before field trips;
  • The MMA and other providers work with the schools to make the field trips as inclusive as possible for the ELL students;
  • The field trip providers visit the classrooms before the field trips whenever possible;
  • Field trip providers and teachers pursue professional development opportunities that focus on how to facilitate learning during field trips;
  • The MMA and teachers, in a joint effort, create a procedural checklist outlining the necessary steps in the field trip process; and,
  • The MMA host a regular summit to bring together the teachers and field trip providers of Nantucket.