Student field trips to COSI in Columbus, Ohio, attract approximately 75,000 visitors annually. We wanted to understand how teachers perceive our science center and field trip offerings in order to better serve them and to represent ourselves to them in the most positive and relevant way. Therefore, COSI conducted several studies to learn why teachers bring students to visit and how they view the relevance of field trips to their curriculum.
What do teachers want?
Our first study, a teacher needs assessment in 2011, recruited teachers with ties to informal education institutions in central Ohio, including a local history center and environmental- and arts-education groups. From the 357 responses to our web-based questionnaire and additional interviews, we learned that
- Teachers believe students learn best in stimulating environments.
- Teachers believe field trips in general offer unique learning opportunities, but teachers typically measure learning through structured assessments (i.e., tests).
- Teachers want field trips to have a detailed schedule where all students interact with the same exhibits/presenters, so they can give their class an assignment based on their experience.
- Teachers want pre- and postvisit information with specifics about the field trip, including behavior expectations and lessons and vocabulary that reinforce the topic.
Teachers tend to agree that science centers are stimulating environments. Science centers bring science to life with interactive experiences, world-class exhibitions, live shows, and workshops. Beyond our buildings, science centers are accessible through interactive videoconference and mobile programs.
Ensuring learning happens
With the emphasis on high-stakes testing in the United States, teachers are publicly accountable for student learning. High-stakes tests are given annually by the state, and results are published and analyzed. School districts strive for high results, so school administrators and teachers scrutinize every classroom moment before testing. Therefore, it is essential that science centers highlight connections to the curriculum.
Museum staff walk a fine line in providing teachers with programs that meet their need for structured assessment while maintaining the informal education experience. COSI does this by connecting programs and pre- and postvisit information to the state standards. For example, last year while COSI hosted the BODY WORLDS exhibition, our education team created a Health & Medicine: 21st Century Learning Lab field trip that connected to Ohio’s Biology and Science Inquiry standards. The field trip included viewing COSI’s Autopsy program, exploring BODY WORLDS, and meeting an Ohio State University researcher to test the effects of drugs on a water flea.
Teachers believe that structured field trips like the Learning Labs connect to their curriculum. The Learning Lab programs provide teachers with a minute-by-minute schedule for students from arrival to departure. On arrival, students receive a booklet with vocabulary and questions. In addition, for all field trip programs, COSI provides pre- and postvisit information online, as well as lessons that tie the experience to the state standards and curriculum.
For more about COSI’s field trip programs, click here.
Is cost an issue?
Ohio funds public schools with municipal taxes, and since the economic downturn, school districts have had difficulty convincing voters to approve additional taxes. The limited funds go only to activities that contribute to student success on the state test. Therefore, linking COSI’s programs to the state standards provides teachers with the justification for taking a field trip.
We conducted two more studies, October–December 2012 and March–May 2013, to better understand teachers’ feelings about several factors, including cost. We asked teachers to choose the top three factors they consider when planning a field trip and rate them on a scale from 1 (unimportant) to 7 (essential).
Although most teachers chose cost as a top factor, two others received higher ratings: program options and connections to curriculum. These results suggest that teachers ask themselves two questions:
1. Can I afford it (admission and transportation)?
2. Does it add value to my students’ learning and/or enhance my curriculum?
Teachers need positive answers to both before they will book a field trip.
In the 2012 and 2013 studies, we also wanted to study teachers’ motivation for booking field trips. From September to December, the first term of a school year, teachers brought students to COSI to enhance learning. From March to June, as the school year ends, teachers were more likely to bring students for an end-of-year or annual trip. These results suggest that science centers should consider separate marketing plans to emphasize learning versus reward at different times during the school year.
COSI’s marketing department supports education programs through three primary communications: direct mail, displays at conferences, and electronic means. Many respondents indicated that they prefer to gather information about a potential field trip from the destination’s website. However, additional research is necessary to determine what prompts teachers to visit a destination’s website.
Conducting a study at your museum
- Determine what you want to know and how you will use the results. We wanted to know why teachers bring students to COSI, so our program team can develop programs that meet teachers’ needs and our marketing team can develop marketing strategies that appeal to educators.
- Choose the study methods. We have gathered data from teachers with interviews, focus groups, and surveys. For all three studies discussed here, we used short (5–10 minutes to complete), web-based questionnaires. Several online platforms are available for developing and administering questionnaires, including SurveyMonkey and Qualtrics; both have a free version.
- Develop and deliver the instrument. When creating a questionnaire, consider working with a professional to design questions that will provide rigorous, meaningful data. Once we had designed our questionnaire, we invited teachers by email to respond to it following their field trip.
- Analyze the data. The web-based platform can generate a report, or you can transfer the data to statistics software for analysis. Tools and resources are available for science centers to conduct studies to better understand what our audiences want and how they perceive our ability to meet their needs. With better understanding, we can strengthen our institutions by providing valuable, relevant programming.
Mary Ann Wojton holds a doctorate in education and is a research associate with Lifelong Learning Group, a unit of the Center for Research and Evaluation at COSI, Columbus, Ohio.
About the image: Students on a field trip to COSI’s Labs in Life work with a microscope under the guidance of Molly Downing (right), a researcher from the Ohio State University. Photo courtesy COSI