By Joshua Klaus, Director of Academic Programs, Ecology Project International (EPI)
Taking students into the field can provide an endless array of occasions to learn new skills, see theoretical concepts enacted, make connections, and learn about the world around us. Given the endless places that offer valuable learning opportunities, it must just be a matter of heading out the door for students to have impactful educational experience, right?
Though it would be nice if it were that easy, there are a few key strategies that will allow any educator (novice or veteran) to make the most of their time – before, during, and after their field experience.
Educators will have a higher likelihood of success if they keep the following things in mind:
- Go outside! The natural world offers limitless educational opportunities. Given the amount of time students spend in front of computers, screens, and isolated from weather, plants, and animals, exposure to the natural world is a fantastic way to engage students’ bodies and minds.
- Real-world projects: Involving students in applied research, service-learning, and conservation or community-related projects will give them a sense of connection to something larger than themselves.
- Find good partners: Working with established land managers, non-profit organizations, or government agencies can help provide additional resources, information, expertise, and motivation.
- Incentivize good work: Offer students school credit, lab hours, or community service credits if they meet or exceed your expectations while in the field.
- Have fun! Focusing on specific learning outcomes is a good idea, but balancing learning with fun, exploration, and freedom will increase the likelihood that students will have a positive, meaningful experience.
As the old adage instructs, failing to adequately plan and prepare often means planning for failure. Preparing students for a field experience is of paramount importance and should include setting clear expectations about goals and behavior, in addition to providing students with the tools, background, vocabulary, and knowledge necessary for success and high-quality outcomes. Advance preparation might include proper gear and equipment, safety protocols, practicing field methodology in advance, and providing a theme or integrating context for learning. At the very least, prior to heading into the field students should be given a structured opportunity to determine what they already know about a particular place or activity in addition to the chance to articulate what questions they have and what they’d like to learn. This could be as simple as asking students to draw a picture, make a list, or tell a partner what they know about a concept. Additionally, individuals could make a K-W-L chart, and the entire group could share the information in the ‘W’ column.
Adequate advanced preparation will help students stay comfortable, safe, and well-fed! By engaging students in managing risks they might encounter in the field – whether hiking on a trail or crossing a busy street – they’ll have a better understanding of the potential dangers they’ll encounter as well as the rationale for making appropriate decisions that will help keep them safe. When students understand why they should do something (instead of just being told they should) they’ll cultivate a deeper sense of ownership and personal responsibility.
Collaboration/ maximizing resources
Many organizations, government agencies, and companies are more than willing to host a group of visiting students. Call the local fisherman to take a tour of his boat, approach the university about a tour of the wet lab, or ask a conservation group to give an on-site presentation to your class about their restoration projects. Experts often love to talk about what they do and are happy to share their knowledge with students. When teaching in Oakland, CA one teacher took his physics class to a boat yard a couple blocks away and a crusty sailor taught them about mechanical advantage and pulley systems used for dry docking and offloading cargo. When the Pixar Studio in nearby Emeryville was under construction, his students crawled around the open foundation with a bunch of engineers who were delighted to tell them all about how they designed the building to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. Think creatively about what you consider a ‘field’ experience, and likely you’ll discover a long list of wonderful opportunities right within your community.
The wheel already exists
Talk to your local conservation group, nature center, government agency, or tourist outfitter about what you would like to do and ask if they can help. Many of these groups have some kind of educational mandate associated with their work, and if you can help them achieve their goals by involving your students in their work, they will likely be accommodating.
Go for it!
For beginning teachers, it’s a great idea to keep things simple until you establish a track record of success with your students and within your community. Start with small, accessible field experiences before making too large a commitment. That being said, despite the importance of preparation (as described above), don’t over-think your first field experiences. Once you’ve covered your bases and the basics, it really can be as simple as heading out the door. The world awaits, so don’t worry – once you get there, your students will thank you.