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A Different Kind of Field Trip

What is a field trip for?

A field trip is a ritual of the school year. But for many, the traditional model of the field trip is not working. Increasingly teachers are feeling pressure to justify the costs, especially in schools that are strapped financially, as many serving low-income students are. They rush from exhibit to exhibit to see everything. But with museums, sometimes less is more.

A child who is engrossed by an exhibit of reptiles should not be nudged along to the next exhibit by the dictates of a worksheet and time clock.

“It was heartbreaking to watch the student who was mesmerized by a particular artifact be pulled away in the interest of time,” said a San Diego teacher who took part in a weekly meeting of educators and museum staff. “What is lost when students get the message that quick and complete [as in forms] is what is valued?”

The weekly meetings were part of the Intersections project, which brought together teachers from the San Diego Area Writing Project at UC San Diego, educators in the city’s public schools, and staff from two local museums, the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Fleet Science Center. Together, they wanted to rethink the field trip.

Scientific Inquiry

In a series of “field trip pilots,” the Intersections team sent teachers, students, and staff to wander the National History Museum, and as in a proper science experiment, observed them in their natural habitat. It was transformational.

Using the materials and practices developed by the local Intersections team, public school teachers would bring students to the museum. While the students were in the museum, teachers and museum educators observed the students and chaperones in action—but did not interact with them. This allowed them to focus on how students interacted with the exhibits, the adults in the room, and each other. They snapped photos of the teachers and students, and they created a map of the spots where kids interacted with exhibits. Some researchers followed a single student, while others stayed in one section of the exhibit and watched students there. Examples of these teachers’ field notes can be found here and here. Stepping back to see the students through the lens of a researcher helped to remind the teachers of their goals for students beyond the trip itself.

The field trip pilots also allowed for iteration. The Intersections team was able to test the tools they were developing, find out what was and was not working, and redesign them accordingly.


So what did the Intersections team learn? First, students do not need more worksheets, and teachers do not need more printed museum guides. Instead, teachers need support in thinking through their goals for a field trip: What do they want students to do as a result of their museum experience? Once that is clear, teachers can prepare students for the visit.

The team also learned the value of partnerships across institutions. Without such a meeting of the minds, they discovered, shared misconceptions would have led them right back to worksheets.

Before the collaboration, the museum educators had assumed teachers wanted guides and worksheets for their students with standards highlighted for each exhibit. Teachers, meanwhile, had assumed museum educators wanted them to use guides.

The new approach allowed teachers and museum curators to explore content and curricular goals together. And, most importantly, it created space for the two groups to talk about how to best support students. Museum educators learned about the barriers teachers experience in scheduling and planning field trips and the misconceptions and lack of information that keep teachers and their students away from museums. In the end, both sides realized that less is more. Just because you can get to all the exhibits at two museums in one day doesn’t mean that you should.