Field trips today are different from what adults remember

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, fifth-graders Logan Cornelius and Landon Albertina slipped their hands into tattered old mitts and clutched vintage baseballs known as "lemon peels." They laughed as they tried on oversized chest protectors, shin guards and masks.

In spite of the laughter, the activities they and other Sherburne-Earlville students enjoyed during a three-hour visit to the Hall of Fame in May were aimed at more than fun. The baseball equipment was part of a Hall of Fame learning module related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) called "Innovation: Tools of the Trade." The lesson uses baseball equipment to call attention to the ways technology, materials and principles of design contribute to player safety and performance.

Like many other museums throughout the state, the Hall of Fame has burnished its appeal as a field trip destination by hiring former teachers to develop lessons and activities that reinforce key ideas in the curriculum. Almost everything students experience at the Hall of Fame is tailored to connect with classroom curriculum for social studies, math, reading, writing, science or the arts.

To help districts decide among a plethora of field trip options, some BOCES offer field trip planning services. The Hall of Fame is among dozens of field trip venues and artists listed in a catalog compiled by Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego BOCES. Each catalog entry highlights connections to history, the arts, literature, science and other curriculum areas.

Field trips booked through BOCES become more economical through discounted prices and state aid designated for "Exploratory Enrichment" or "Arts in Education".

Some consider the term "field trip" to be antiquated, evoking recollections - accurate or not - of school-sanctioned junkets with minimal educational value.

"Let's not use that word anymore," urged Erika Sanger, executive director of the Museum Association of New York, when asked about field trips. "That shortcut is infused with all sorts of meanings that don't apply."

Sanger admits she doesn't have a perfect replacement for the term, but she suggested:

Browse the website of almost any museum, historic site or other cultural institution that hosts New York students, and you'll find an array of recommended reading and lesson plans, often with specific citations of the learning standards they support.

"Schools want to make sure the lesson ties into the curriculum. They don't have time for a field trip if it's not," explained Nathan Tweedie, manager of on-site learning at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On Board tagged along with the Sherburne-Earleville fifth-graders to get a feel for how museums have reinvented themselves as extensions of the classroom. Among the lessons learned from the Hall of Fame visit: to understand baseball, it helps to understand math.

As part of a mathematics module focused on statistics, some students pondered the dilemma Ted Williams faced on the final day of the regular season in 1941, when the Red Sox left fielder had a batting average of .39955 well in hand. With rounding, that would have assured him a remarkable .400 batting average in official record books for the season. Should he sit out a double-header that day to keep that stat secure? Or should he risk losing it to shoot for an absolute .400 average, without rounding?

Williams chose to play. He earned six hits in eight at-bats, ending the season with an official batting average of .406 and becoming the last Major League player to hit the historic .400 mark.

Armed with calculators and clipboards, the students were better able to grasp the significance of Williams' choice and achievement. "I don't find it at all difficult to link academic content to baseball," said Richard Payne, a retired science teacher who led the session on baseball statistics and develops educational programs for the Hall of Fame.

While one group of students was doing math with Payne, others were touring parts of the museum dedicated to civil rights and women's history as part of a social studies curriculum track and re-creating a radio broadcast of Hank Aaron's record-setting 715th home run as part of a communication arts thread.

The activities the students enjoyed that day could later be used by their teachers to bolster instruction back in their classrooms, thanks to a suite of lesson plans featuring citations of specific learning standards supported by each lesson.

Hall of Fame exhibits illuminating Jim Crow laws and the Negro League, for example, helped to bring home the reality of racial segregation and discrimination when students studied the Civil Rights Movement and read a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League player, said Sherburne-Earlville elementary Principal Antoinette Halliday.

Another favorite field trip for Sherburne-Earlville, the Wolf Mountain Nature Center in Smyrna, is a good fit for a third-grade reading unit that examines how wolves are portrayed in literature, Halliday said.

"The facilities know that money is tight, and they are making the effort to provide that tie-in to curriculum," she said. "It takes the learning to a much deeper level than it had been in the past."

The Wild Center, a natural history museum in Tupper Lake, is a leader in developing curriculum and lesson plans aligned with state learning standards for science, math and English language arts. The museum's field trip topics include: Erosion and the Water Cycle, Mammals of the Adirondacks, Trouble in the Trout Tank, and Radio Telemetry.

Attention to high-quality curriculum has helped to make The Wild Center a staple destination for the Malone school district, said Jerry Griffin, superintendent in the Malone school district. "Schools are trying to squeeze every bit of instructional time they can out of any day on the calendar," he said.

Malone fourth-graders annually visit the nearby boyhood home of Almanzo Wilder, best known as the husband of "Little House" books author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Almanzo was the subject of Laura's book "Farmer Boy," which the students read before they visit the Wilder Homestead. According to the Wilder Homestead website, the staff can work with teachers to plan class activities - perhaps learning more about Wilder's time in history (the mid-1800s) or even churning butter - to enhance the educational value of their visits.

"Most of our trips are tied to something our teachers can use back in the classroom," Griffin said.

Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, popular school group destinations for decades, also have stepped up their work to make sure their programs correspond clearly to New York's learning standards, said Danielle Henrici, director of education for both institutions.

"We get so much feedback from teachers who say their funding is very limited and it's hard to get permission to take the kids off the school campus," she said. "So, if they're going to do it, there needs to be a good reason, and it has to align with the state standards."

The two sister museums, Farmers' and Fenimore, are beefing up their repertoire in four high-demand curriculum areas that are among their natural strengths: Native American history and culture, the Civil War, civil rights and social justice, and environmental sustainability.

"What we have been told by teachers is that these are areas that are of particular interest to them," Henrici said. "They lend themselves well to experiential learning. Also, they are large areas in the curriculum. So, the more entrance points teachers can get for their students, the better."

Several school leaders told On Board they believe field trips also have intrinsic benefits for students, aside from academics, simply by exposing them to new experiences, places and ideas.

The DCMO BOCES guide lists 80-plus field trip destinations throughout New York and neighboring states, ranging from farms and small local concert venues to major New York City attractions like the American Museum of Natural History and Broadway shows.

"We live in a very rural area, and we have a high percentage of students living in poverty," said Sherburne-Earlville Superintendent Eric Schnabl. "These are experiences students might not have, otherwise."

Research supports Schnabl's view that visiting museums, gardens, animal sanctuaries and other such places is likely to enhance learning opportunities.

A 2014 study that examined the impact of modest one-hour school tours of a new art museum in Northwest Arkansas found substantial gains for students in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance and interest in visiting museums again.

The gains were particularly strong among rural, minority and economically disadvantaged students, according to the study, "The Educational Value of Field Trips," by Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen. The researchers also found that students retained significant amounts of factual information from their tours, despite museum professionals' expectations that students would retain very little.

An expansive review of research on the educational value of science field trips published in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education in 2014 concluded that "experiential learning at formal and informal field trip venues increases student interest, knowledge and motivation."

While Schnabl also applauds "virtual" field trips and other technological advances that can help bring new ideas and experiences to students while they are at school, he says nothing can beat a real field trip for giving students a taste of the possibilities outside their homes and classrooms.

"They are seeing that there's a big world out there," he said.

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