Scheduling Authentic Field Trips for Authentic Projects

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STUDENT CREATED TELESCOPE INSPIRED BY A FIELD TRIP

When I first started teaching, field trips took place at the end of a unit of study, usually dangled out there as a reward for a successful completion of the unit.  Actually, this is how field trips were used for most of my career.

But when you look at teaching authentically, it makes much more sense to hold those field trips earlier, even at the beginning of a project.  Field trips should be used to promote questions, cause higher level thinking, and cause the student to want to explore the topic further.

Of course, an introduction to the topic should occur before the project begins.  Going in with no background information doesn’t give the student the prior knowledge needed to know what they are looking at.  That is the big judgment call – how much information do the students need to successfully navigate a field trip, without giving them so much that it stifles their own questions and curiosity.  What guidelines are the students given before the trip so that they know what to expect and what is expected of them?

I ran my most successful field trip by accident.  (Ok, most of the wonderful things I did in my career happened totally by accident!)  My school was near the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  Due to scheduling difficulties (NASA Goddard is always booked up for the academic year very early) we had to visit earlier in the project than I wanted to.  I also did not realize we were going to see the actual James Webb Space Telescope which was/is currently under construction.  So, we ended up going on this trip early in our space related project.  The kids had solid background knowledge about space and space exploration.  But none of us, including the teachers, knew that we were going to see the actual James Webb Space Telescope.

I can sum up the authentic learning and engagement that took place by relating what one wide-eyed teacher said to me.  He turned to me when we entered the viewing area for the telescope and said he hoped the kids were behaving because he couldn’t take his eyes off the telescope or divert his full attention from the presentation.  I looked around and saw that every child was as engaged as the teachers were.  This resulted in tons of questions, and project suggestions when we returned to school.  I don’t know if the engagement would have been as intense if we had “beat to death” information about the telescope and the fact that we were actually going to see the telescope before we went on the trip.  And we certainly would not have had all of the opportunities to explore what we saw, if we had scheduled the trip in June, as I had originally hoped to.  A totally authentic and fantastic field trip, every detail totally planned out in advanced by me. (Ummm…nope!)

By the way, the James Webb Space Telescope would be a super jumping off point for an authentic project.

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