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Resource Center

Inside the current issue:

The Field Trip Challenge: Finding Common Ground

Connecting with Curriculum:
A Hands-On Biotech Lab

Serving Teachers, Supporting Schools:
A Collaborative Solution

Science Oasis:
Solving the Distance Problem

Online vs. On-Site:
The 'Burarra Gathering' Experience

Chaperone-Led Field Trips:
The Road Less Traveled?

Closing the Distance at COSI


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: September/October 2004
  September/October 2004 Dimensions

September/October 2004
Farther Afield:
The Changing School Visit

The Field Trip Challenge: Finding Common Ground

By Dennis Schatz

"We are no longer allowed to schedule field trips or bring programs into our schools without justifying in writing how they will help us meet the stated standards."

"The amount of subject matter we need to teach each year to meet the demands of our school's mandated curriculum is so great that there is no time to schedule visits to the science center."

"The school's budget is so tight that it is nearly impossible to pay for buses to go to the science center or get the PTA to pay for the outreach program to come to the school."

These are the types of comments I hear from teachers, parents, and science center professionals whenever we talk about why, in this world of "No Child Left Behind," it can be so difficult to get school groups to visit science centers. At Pacific Science Center (PSC), as at many other U.S. institutions, school group attendance has plateaued since the beginning of the new millennium.

As a science center professional with 30+ years working in the education arena, I have tried to delve deeper into the underlying causes for these comments. As I considered the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary needs, goals, and constraints of schools and science centers, I found myself visualizing a system (see diagram below) in which these factors might overlap to suggest a new approach to the classic "field trip."

  Diagram shows three interlocking ovals: School Needs, Science Center Goals and Financial CONSTRAINTS. At the intersection of the three are: Structured Exploration, Specific Curricula, Unique Experiences, Improved Outreach.
  • The needs of schools. As the standards movement has been implemented across the United States, state departments of education have (1) begun specifying which science concepts need to be learned in which grades and (2) created mandatory tests to document that learning. School districts have responded by aligning their instructional materials to the mandated concepts and requiring teachers to cover them. Teachers, many with their jobs hanging on successful testing results, are thus less willing (or able) to spend a day at the science center simply for the joy of learning; they now demand that the experience relate directly to the curriculum they teach.

  • The goals of science centers. Historically, the missions of science centers have not been tied to a specific curriculum. We exist to inspire an interest in and appreciation for science and a lifelong desire to explore scientific concepts. High priorities for science centers include (1) making it possible for individuals to freely explore exhibits and programs that appeal to them and (2) providing experiences not available in a school setting.

  • The financial constraints on both. Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that budgets at both schools and science centers are increasingly strained. In schools, the costs of busing students to a science center have increased; principals' discretionary funds are down; and PTA fund-raisers must now pay for a wider range of school expenses. Museums are facing more local competition in the out-of-school science experiences market than they did a decade ago. Since I came to PSC in 1977, for example, Seattle has added a flight museum, an aquarium, a children's museum, and several environmental education centers. So resources are spread more thinly.
The "central triangle"

Is there a place where these diverse needs, goals, and constraints overlap? Can science centers find ways to meet teachers' expectations, keep program costs in check, and still maintain our core identity? Here are some ideas-gathered from conversations with science center staff from across the United States-for modifications that can help keep our field trip programs attractive to school group audiences in coming years.
  1. Offer structured exploration. The new emphasis on aligning with standards and teaching specific concepts requires us to offer something more than opportunities for free exploration. Teachers look to science centers to provide a mechanism to structure students' use of exhibits and programs. Some museums are developing standards-linked worksheets for students to complete during their visit; others may not wish to go this far. But providing open-ended questions for students to answer as they use exhibits can meet schools' needs while still falling within the science center's mission.

  2. Connect to specific curricula. Teachers are most familiar with the units they teach. It is not hard to link a science center's exhibits and programs to state or national standards, but we can serve teachers even better by identifying the curriculum units commonly taught in our community and explicitly stating how our exhibits and programs help convey the concepts in those units. A strong approach is to combine exhibit exploration with a related laboratory experience for a specific curriculum unit. PSC now offers all kindergarten classes, for example, a combination of exhibit and laboratory experiences that conveys the concepts covered in the FOSS Wood and Paper module.

  3. Emphasize unique experiences. As competition from other informal science attractions increases and teachers are faced with justifying the value of a trip to the science center, we need to offer experiences that cannot be found elsewhere or duplicated in the classroom. Observing the motions of the night sky in a planetarium, doing electrophoresis to examine DNA, exploring the life cycle of a butterfly in a butterfly atrium-all of these are strong reasons for a school group to visit the science center, especially if the experience can be modified to meet the needs of different grade levels and curricula.

  4. Improve physical and virtual outreach. With budget constraints making it more difficult for schools to get to the science center, we need to find new ways to take our programs to them. These can include not only the traditional outreach van of exhibits, demonstrations, and laboratory experiences, but also virtual ways to convey unique experiences to the classroom. Institutions like the Liberty Science Center, COSI Columbus, and the New York Hall of Science are finding success with videoconferencing, in which schools pay for virtual access to a live science center program keyed to local curricula or to a mediated third-party experience, such as a live surgical procedure.

These are not the only possibilities, of course, and it is important that whatever programs we devise not place added burdens on museum resources. If school groups make up only a small percentage of overall attendance at a given institution, it might be more cost-effective to explore modest ways to align school visits to the state's education reform effort and put remaining resources toward improvements for the general visitor.

One thing is clear, however: In today's climate, science centers must take the lead in developing school programs more intimately connected to what teachers are required to teach in the classroom.

Dennis Schatz is vice president for education and exhibits at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington;
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