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The Out-of-Classroom Experience

By Dave Douglass

mountain scene

Things to consider when dreaming-up, organizing, planning and leading field trips and other learning activities which take place outside of the traditional classroom setting.



The outside-the-classroom learning experience, commonly known as a "field trip", is a type of experiential learning which get students away from the traditional classroom setting and into a new environment. It can be as simple as taking the class out on to the campus for a drawing exercise, or as elaborate as planning an extended overnight field trip in the woods. In the extreme, out-of-classroom experiences can include summer field camps, extended stays at research stations and even a semester abroad.

The potential benefits for teaching outside the classroom can be enormous. Putting a class into a different physical setting generates a bond among class members and creates a learning community. Sometimes simply getting to the field trip destination is an opportunity for students to get to know each other, as well as their instructor. Active field trips can also offer unprecedented opportunities for experiential learning, which almost always has a more lasting impact than a classroom lecture, regardless of how good the lecturer is. How can any classroom lecture on wastewater treatment compare to the sight, sounds and smells of actually visiting a sewage treatment plant?


Things to consider when putting together a field trip

artist painting mountainsBe Creative:  A field trip doesn’t have to involve complicated logistics, great expense or even a bus. It might simply involve taking your trigonometry class out to the front of the school to calculate the height of the flagpole using a transit. Simply breaking up the routine by going somewhere else to learn is worth doing.

Many college campuses have a variety of resources that can be enlisted for learning. For example, our campus has the Mirror Pools — very large, rectangular pools of water 6-inches deep. For art courses, these become the subjects of perspective drawings. For oceanography courses, they make great wave tanks. Students love to see the instructor splashing around in ankle deep water demonstrating reflection, refraction and wave dispersion.

Other obvious on-campus resources include galleries, museums, displays, public artwork, playing fields, murals, outdoor amphitheaters, parking structures, cactus gardens etc. Be aware however, that administrators generally frown on taking students on the roof, near moving cars, or doing other things that might appear dangerous to the casual, untrained observer.

If you can’t meet your field trip learning objectives on campus, then don’t be afraid to consider places off campus. This, of course, introduces a whole new dimension in planning, paperwork and permission… It also unleashes an infinite number of possibilities for providing your students with outstanding learning experiences.

Text Box:  Keep it Simple:  There are many different kinds of field trips ranging from brief forays outside the classroom to spending an entire semester abroad. Consider the following hierarchy of out-of-classroom experiences:

  • On-campus trips during class time — A lot to be said for this. Requires minimal planning or paperwork
  • Off-campus trips during class time — Usually requires some planning and paperwork, but still pretty simple and easy to accomplish.
  • Day trips - Usually these trips extend beyond normal class time. They often require paper work such as transportation requests, liability and medical release forms. They also require careful planning and thoughtful integration into the curriculum.
  • Overnight trips - In addition to all of the above, overnight trips also requiring food and shelter in addition to the course work.
  • Extended overnight trips — All the above plus several days worth of food, shelter and personality conflicts.
  • Semesters AbroadNot for the faint at heart. It is one thing to be a savvy traveler yourself. It is another completely different experience to take a group of students thousands of miles away from home for an extended period of time.

If you are new to field trips, you might want to start somewhere near the top of the list and work down. We urge great caution, to anyone wanting to take students far away from civilization for an extended period of time. Recent research has show that students are becoming less and less comfortable going "out of cell phone range". Extended trips are definitely not for everyone. That being said, they can often be one of the most rewarding experiences an instructor or student may ever have. And the experience almost always lasts a lifetime.

scuba diver with comment:  appropriate for marine biology, not for auto technology Make it Appropriate:  It is important to tie in any out-of-classroom experience closely to the course content. Administrators hate it when they think instructors are going on a boondoggle. But far more important than what administrators think, the students resent it when the instructor makes them do something that seems irrelevant. This is true for classroom work as well as being outside the classroom. It’s just that outside the classroom the whining and disgruntlement will be amplified and harder to escape.

While planning your trip, think carefully about what the students will be doing and learning while on the trip. What kinds of activities will they be engaged in besides hiking, breathing hard and sweating? How will their participation be assessed or evaluated? How will students be held accountable for what they have learned? And most importantly, how will this be tied back into to further work in the classroom.

Will your students be interacting with anyone, such as tourists or other people passing by, or anything, such as wildlife or poison ivy, while on the trip? Both kinds of interaction can be valuable and/or traumatic learning experiences. For example, we purposely have oceanography field students measure beach profiles when other people are around. Having to explain to someone what you are doing and why you are doing it is an extremely valuable learning opportunity. Likewise, we try to prevent our students from learning about poisonous plants first hand. For example, I have personally and inadvertently demonstrated the hazards of touching poison oak to many of my classes over the years — at great personal discomfort I might add.

Make it Pedagogically Sound:  Any field trip should "make sense" from a learning standpoint. Remember physical activity is not necessarily the same as mental engagement. Most field trips, and here we are thinking about a typical one-day outing, involve going somewhere relevant to the topic under discussion in the course and having the students actively make observations, record information, gather data or otherwise engage in the subject material.

Experience has shown that the best field trips also involve some classroom preparation before going on the trip, as well as some classroom follow-up or de-briefing. Pre- and Post-trip class work is necessary to successfully weave the field experience fully into the content of the course. Otherwise, the field trip might just be another isolated student experience disconnected from the curriculum.

Plan, Plan, Plan:  In real estate its location, location, location. However with field trips, it is far more important to have a good plan for your trip rather than a spectacular site to visit. You can take a meaningful, highly educational field trip to a vacant lot if you have a good plan. Careful planning can make a field trip succeed almost regardless of uncontrollable circumstances such as weather. You might be able to "wing it" in the classroom, but dealing with a group of cold, wet and hungry students on a rained-out field trip takes some forethought. Lack of careful planning can result in disaster (literally) and can be dangerous.

The flip side to careful planning is flexibility. Have a good plan but don’t be bound by it. Many things can happen in the uncontrolled environment outside the classroom. Transportation problems, inclement weather and unexpected closures are not infrequent events on field trips. Therefore having a "back-up plan" is highly recommended. Occasionally what might seem like an inconvenient delay or change of plans might turn into a learning opportunity. Once we were stopped for an hour or so in the middle of no-where between Escalante Utah and Capitol Reef National Park while the highway department did some road repair. The delay turned into a detailed lecture of geological engineering and road building culminated by the spectacular sight of half the hillside being dynamited away. Later students recalled this as one of the highlights of the trip.

Consider the following checklist when planning a field trip:

  • Think about what it is you want to accomplish by going outside the classroom.
  • Develop a lesson plan, even if it’s just in your head, which envisions what you will be doing, what the students will be doing and what will be the outcome of the trip. Develop a back-up plan in case something goes astray.
  • Select a location that will address your educational goals and will be accessible given time, transportation and cost restraints.
  • Dry-run the trip. Visit the site or locations you plan on visiting with your class. Go through, in your mind, what you will say and do at each stop. Note the travel times between destinations, and be sure to allow for changes in traffic patterns. It might a lot less time to go from you school to your destination on the weekend than during the middle of rush hour.
  • Take care of logistics by calling or visiting ahead of time. Procure money for admission fees, get a fee wavier, or let the students know ahead of time what they will be expected to pay for. Make transportation arrangements as soon as you’ve decided on a destination.
  • Do the paperwork in plenty of time to meet the requirements of your institution. For example, at my institution all field trips outside of the county must be board reported. This means truck loads of paperwork has to be done weeks ahead of time.
  • Inform the students, verbally and in writing, regarding the details of the trip. Include important information such as where to meet, how to dress, what to bring and what not to bring, how much the trip is going to going to cost them, what to do if it’s raining and what will be expected of them while on the trip. For extended overnight trips, this sometimes takes an hour or two! Have the students fill out all the forms required by your institution ahead of time so you can maximize the time spent in the field. See the "Sample Syllabus" and "Zen Camping" at the end of this document for examples.
  • Make a checklist of any equipment, gear or teaching materials you will need to bring on the trip. Look over your checklist after the trip to see what you forgot, or what might be added for next time. See "Sample Checklist" at the end of this document for an example.
  • Start on time. Don’t wait more that 10 minutes for students who are late for the beginning of the trip. It sets a bad precedent, and your field trip will probably be better off without them. Also, do your best to get back on time — the students will appreciate it.


Some creative field trips for different disciplines

    • Anthropology — Visits to the zoo or local museums can be important. However you might consider taking students to a modern "site", such as a remote roadside turn out, where they must gather information and evidence in order to deduce what kind of people might occupy the site and which kind of activities might take place there.
    • Architecture — Take students to real sites to give them realistic design and building challenges. These trips can be done in conjunction with other disciplines such as biology, geology, business or environmental studies.
    • Astronomy — Seeing the rings of Saturn for the first time through a telescope, or even a good pair of binoculars, is absolutely thrilling. Grab a star chart and head for somewhere dark.
    • Biology — Biology students can often be found tramping off to the local mountains to sample and document plant populations. Data gathered in the field can then be taken back to the classroom for population study and statistical analysis.
    • Environmental Studies — Your local waste water treatment plant or near-by landfill makes as excellent field trip your students won’t soon forget. For example, see http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/envsci .
    • English as a Second Language— Take ESL students on an overnight camping trip. Have them work together to plan for the trip, by and prepare food, set up tents etc. Insist that all communication take place in English, and have them do reflective writing on their experiences. For example, a trip can have water as its theme, and involve visiting several sites critical to the history of water in Southern California.
    • Foreign Languages - Exceptional opportunities exist for study abroad, however consider paring your course with a content course, such as art or humanities, geared towards the country being visited.
    • Geography — Use technology tools such as Global Positioning System instruments to connect real-world spatial problems to maps and Geographic Information System databases. Nothing is more relevant to a student than data they have collected themselves.
    • Geology — These folks have been doing field trips for ages… a good place to go for ideas and help organizing extended field trips. For example, see http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/instadmn/physcidv/geol_dp/dndougla/WYO97HP/WYO97HP.htm this web site was created on the fly, using laptops and computers in the field during a 16 day trip to the Rocky Mountains.
    • Oceanography — Train students in the classroom to use basic field equipment such as survey levels, GPS receivers, digital cameras, water samplers, sand sieves etc. Then take them to local beaches and have them "document" the state of the shore line. This data can them be archived on the Internet for comparison to past and future classes. See http://www.paccd.cc.ca.us/oceans for an example of how students have collected data in the field, and used the web to document their research.
    • Photography — Large format photography classes have taken their classes to the White Mountains of California to photograph Bristle-Cone Pines, the oldest living things on earth.


How field trips specifically address pedagogical issues

astronomerActive Learning: Students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process, and field trips often force students to be engaged with the subject matter. Its hard not to think about mountains and topography and gravity while climbing up the side of a mountain. It’s hard to avoid speaking Spanish when you are studying abroad in Costa Rica. And its hard not to appreciate art when staring face-to-face with a real Picasso.

Going on a field trip takes an investment of effort on the part of the learner. In this age of instant bombardment of information from a multitude of media sources, students have become highly skilled passive receptors. On a field trip, learning becomes student initiated and student based. Students take on responsibility for their own learning by directly engaging with the subject matter. Upon reflection, most students look fondly on field trips and consider them some of the richest learning experiences they have ever had.

Promote Critical Thinking:  One thing students have to do on overnight field trips is to solve problems. If the material covered during the day hasn’t challenged their minds enough, are always those little things like providing their own food and shelter to jar students back into reality. I’ll never forget the time that a student, after spending 10 minutes showing me his brother’s deluxe Swiss Army knife with 47 different tools and attachments, returned a few minutes later in a panic to ask me how he was going to open his can of beans without an electric can opener.

Learning Styles:  Field trips are especially appealing to visual and active learners. However physical activity does not necessarily equal mental engagement. On geology field trips we make students write, sketch, use maps and take notes while listening to lectures and working out problems in the field. In most cases, cleverly designed problems and curriculum materials such as field guides and work sheets, usually provide something for everyone.

campingBuilding Learning Communities:  The mere act of piling on to a bus and going somewhere builds community. Curiously however, the more challenging the trip, the stronger the learning community becomes. There is nothing better than a good life-threatening experience to bond a group together (although this is NOT a recommended strategy). However, challenge means different things to different people. What may seem like a routine rafting trip to an experienced instructor might be the unforgettable experience of a lifetime for a group of students.

Relationships can develop on field trips that can last a lifetime. If students must depend on each other to get their field-work done, to keep from getting hopelessly lost, to get their tent set up so they can get out of the rain, or to cook their own food, they truly become connected. Conversations around the campfire at night while on field trips suggest that students learn a lot about living in close quarters with others, getting along in society and what truly matter in life.

Build Skills:  For some disciplines, field work is essential for building skills. For example, in the geological sciences most students must complete five or six weeks of summer field camp before graduating with a bachelor’s degree. The skills of observation and mapping must be acquired in the field, there simply is no good alternative. However for many other disciplines there is also great benefit in getting students out I the real world, with real problems and real people. Field trips are an important way to accomplish these goals.

drawings of shells

Convey Knowledge:  "Nature is the best teacher."  - Unknown


observing sunset

Things to watch out for when teaching outside the classroom

  • Keep track of everyone — Count the students each time you get back on the bus!
  • Stick Together — Especially if traveling in caravan (taking multiple private cars)
  • Avoid dangerous areas and/or dangerous people
  • Try not to piss people off
  • Respect other people’s property, privacy and space
  • Choose your drivers wisely
  • Give good, easy to follow directions to each driver in writing
  • Never underestimate peoples ability to get lost
  • Don’t forget the First Aid Kit
  • Wake the students up early
  • Tire them out during the day
  • Keep 'em busy at night
  • Camp as far away from bars and liquor stores as possible
  • Make the experience meaningful to the course
  • Make the experience fun and enjoyable for the students
  • Wash the mud off the vans before you bring them back.


More Ideas

Zen Camping

Sample Syllabus

Equipment Checklist


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