Last week I had the awesome opportunity to rejoin my suburban 8th grade earth science classes from my fall observation and student teaching, as they went on a full day field trip to Letchworth State Park. There are 3 sections of this class, and we took one section (ranging from 15-21 students) per day over a 3 day period. Previously I’ve read one research article about field trips and education, but this was a chance to help out and get firsthand experience with a very experienced teacher.
Until last year this field trip (which is a district requirement for ES) was run in just 1 day total, bringing all the sections of earth science in the middle school, including 6 other sections taught by the 2 other ES teachers. It was a mammoth expedition that required 5 buses and a large number of chaperones, and my CT had always felt that the large size limited the value of the trip for the students. Based on my observations of this year’s trips, I can’t imagine doing it the other way – all in one day. Even with groups this small, there were a good number of straggling or distracted students at every stopping point who did not get to hear the full explanations from my CT and me. It’s easy to imagine that with larger groups, there would be a certain portion of each class who could go through the whole field trip without once paying any attention to their surroundings. I don’t mean this as a knock against my students, but a field trip does offer lots of opportunity for socializing with your school friends (with little adult supervision), which is a very important activity when you’re in 8th grade. Many of these students recently went on a three-day trip to Washington D.C., and I asked lots of the students about that trip throughout this one, and what they enjoyed most about the DC trip. There was a good percentage who found the bus ride to and from D.C. to be the best part of the trip – pretty good evidence for the importance of socializing.
The goal of the Letchworth field trip was for students to bring together all the concepts they’ve been learning in earth science all year, and to try to make sense of why the park looks like it does, and to also think about the manmade and natural forces that have shaped the park. For many of the students, this was their first time actively seeing sedimentary rocks outside of the classroom. (As my CT said, they’ve all driven past lots of road-cuts, but I suspect that they haven’t realized that they’re seeing sedimentary rocks there. )
The students each had a clipboard and a lab packet with requirements for general observations at a number of locations, as well as specific questions that needed to be answered. The packet was quite open-ended, and had many questions that could be answered at multiple locations, with only a few truly location-specific questions. Maybe this also had to do with the fact that we were seeing similar things over and over – erosion, massive walls of shale and sandstone, waterfalls, as well as glacial deposits and a wide variety of evidence of the influence of mankind (especially the many trails and steps built by the CCC). My CT has worked as an environmental educator, and he has a good instinct for keeping students engaged and learning when they are outdoors, but also allowing them the opportunity to explore on their own, and experience the random neat stuff that comes up on a hike in the woods. The packet is designed to encourage a good amount of observation and a certain amount of processing, but then they spend the next day back in class on the last half of the packet, making more connections between the things they observed and the things they’ve been learning all year. The packet also went beyond earth science to talk about the impact that the CCC had on the park, as well as the use of the land by Native Americans before the Europeans arrived.
At one point, we stumbled across a huge number of puddles full of tadpoles down in the bottom of the gorge, and I spent a good bit of time with some of the straggling students examining them and talking about the life cycle of frogs and toads, and why these creatures seem to have so many offspring when compared to humans. When the students came and told me they had found some grown frogs in the water at the edge of the River, I went over and I was baffled by the sight of 7 or 8 adult TOADS swimming around. When I pointed out to the students that toads don’t usually hang out in water, but prefer life on land, we all puzzled over what we were seeing, until we discovered the long strands of toad eggs nearby – it was egg-laying time. It was pretty neat to see 8th grade girls scooping up handfuls of tadpoles to show around to their classmates, and everyone wanted to touch the toads and the strands of toad eggs that I picked up and showed around.
My CT pushed the kids pretty hard with the hiking – I think each class hiked at least 2.5 miles, and one class probably did about 4 or 5 miles in the end. We varied the trips each day based on the weather, and the capabilities of the students. Day 2 did the least hiking, since we had 2 students with developmental and/or physical limitations in that class, but that class was still pretty worn out by the end of the day. The bus rides back home were very quiet when compared with the rides down, and I’m pretty sure there were kids who were asleep on the ride back each day. My CT was very careful with safety, and also made sure to keep the kids hydrated, as we had three pretty hot and sunny days. I had a couple occasions where students made me a little bit nervous with skipping (or stumbling) within 10 or 15 feet of the edge of the gorge, and there are definitely places in Letchworth where you could go over the edge if you really made the effort, but I like to think that I was just being healthily paranoid. There was a bit of groaning and moaning about bugs and being tired, and lots of speculation about how long until lunch, but not quite as much as I expected.
My CT and I could only laugh (and wince) when we heard students on the bus ride home of the Friday trip talking about the upcoming 3-day holiday weekend – with one girl saying, “Yeah! We didn’t have to learn anything today either, so really that’s like a 4-day weekend!” My CT pointed out to me that students generally believe that they are only learning when they are in the classroom – taking notes, or working on lab sheets. Even after spending a day in the woods absorbing all sorts of things, the habits of our school systems die pretty hard – learning equals notes or lab-work inside a school building. Overall I think all three trips were a huge success, and regardless of the amusingly telling comments like the one above, the students did learn a lot, and they did make connections between the things they’ve been seeing and talking about in class and the world around them. I think my CT would have liked to have been able to prepare the students a bit more beforehand for the trip, and this is one thing that the research shows can really make a difference in what students get out of fields trips (having them research and read about where they will be and what they will see and be looking for). But it’s a struggle, because he’s in a constant race with the coming Regents exam, and so one of the three classes did not even get a day-before overview of the trip. But the trip was well-designed, so that students had time to look around and absorb things at their own pace for the most part, as we guided them to interesting spots. At the end of the day, my CT was just as excited (or more so) about teaching kids to skip stones as talking geology with his students. I think he doesn’t really judge the success of the trip by how many kids finish their packet, but by their engagement with the environment during the trip.