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Learning Without Walls

Rick picked up an oyster shell from the sand and held it out to the crab. The crab reached out with its pincher and snapped--really crumbled--that shell. The shell could have been made of chalk. I was stunned by the force of that pinch.

Janet Lawrence
Tahlequah, Oklahoma,
high school science teacher

No matter how often you read about a natural force like the power of a crab's pinchers, experiencing it in action expands your understanding. Knowing that crabs catch their prey with pinchers is one thing, but watching a crab break the shell of a food source provides a memorable learning experience.

In February 1999 a group of educators gathered on the Texas Gulf Coast to broaden their understanding not only of the natural world but also of teaching about that world and helping students experience it. These teachers and principals came from the Mississippi Delta, the high plains of Oklahoma, the deserts of New Mexico, and Texas cities; they were taking part in a field experience sponsored by the Eisenhower Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Science and Mathematics Teaching (SCIMAST).

Each year, teachers, project directors, and others connected with the 13 SCIMAST Professional Development Award (PDA) projects attend a Winter Meeting designed to encourage networking for across-project sharing so PDA leaders and their principals can develop better under-standing of professional development.

For the 1999 meeting, the PDA participants wanted to focus on strategies for developing useful field experiences. SCIMAST staff wanted to explore how to use field work to extend classroom learning and build communities of learners. Capturing the qualities of a successful field experience by experiencing and reflecting on one together was the best approach to meeting all of our goals.

Map of the Texas Cost

We met at Port Aransas, Texas, the site of the Marine Science Institute of the University of Texas and the home of one of the PDA projects. Located on a barrier island off of the Texas Coastal Bend, the site offers opportunities to study bays, the Gulf of Mexico, tidal flats, and shifting dunes. Yet to most of the participants, the Texas coast provided a novel environment for learning, one they knew little about and that differed from their home environments. Would this learning be useful to educators after they returned home? Would what they learned on the Texas coast be relevant to their teaching lives? The planners of this experience did everything they could think of to be sure the answers to these questions would be yes.


One higher education faculty member connected with a PDA site in Louisiana pointed out that "planning is the most important thing for making a field trip come off." Planning for this February meeting began in September. It involved coordinating between the SCIMAST staff and the director of the Marine Science PDA project. Activities had to flow from one to the other in a logical order; time had to be set aside for participants to think about what they had seen and relate it to their previous learning. Participants needed the opportunity to work with a range of colleagues.

Setting a field experience within the learning goals of a class is one of the most important things a teacher does when taking children for out-of-class learning. A successful field experience is never a last minute add-on to a class schedule but is always an integral part of class content.

For the SCIMAST staff the challenge of planning was to help the participants to focus on the broad environmental learning and to see how they could take this learning home with them. To do this we needed an overarching theme that would help the participants focus on what was to be learned.

Setting the Context and Expectations

As the overarching theme of the meeting, SCIMAST staff introduced the concept of a system and modeled a way to investigate the structures that support adaptation in birds and, by extension, other creatures. The participants developed their own definitions of the idea of a system and referred to these throughout the several days of the field experience (see activities). The first few activities shaped common experiences for participants as they learned about the physical setting, what kinds of organisms they would see, and what concepts they would use.

To make expectations clear, on the first morning SCIMAST gave each participant a general description of the assessment task they would perform at the end of the week, along with criteria and an evaluation rubric. At the end of the meeting the participants would have to show themselves and others what they had learned. The staff made sure that we highlighted the natural relationships that would be important. With this information, the participants knew what to focus on as they went about their work.

Brainstorming and reflection on their own experiences helped participants to sharpen their own ideas of what a field trip should be like. They then captured those ideas in a checklist and used it during the week as a check to see if their work was meeting their own expectations. (See checklist)

The first experience to heighten the participants' awareness of what a field trip is really like was their change in role from teacher to student. "Right away, we began to experience and identify with our students' zones of discomfort. There were a lot of things out there I didn't want to touch," one teacher said. The wind blew in from the ocean, sand flew into their faces, and most of them were wet and chilled each day. Still, from the first moment their curiosity kicked in. Even after the boat trip was over and they had left the beach, they continued to talk about the discoveries they had made.

"The experience made you grow and made you a better observer," a teacher pointed out, "not to mention making you a little braver because you finally understood more about that particular environment." "I know I became a better observer," said an Oklahoma teacher. "On the beach there was what looked like a lot of old twine spread all over. I just ignored it and went looking for the interesting stuff. Then Rick [director of the Marine Institute PDA project] told us that the 'twine' was the center core of a soft coral. That really opened my eyes and made me pay attention. After that I saw more things on the ground and in the sky than I had before."

Experiencing, Observing and Recording

Picture of microscope hooked up to television monitor

Participants divided into two groups; one set out for the bay in a small ship, the RV Katy, while the other group combed the beaches and landward sides of the dunes at the Padre Island National Seashore. Later in the week the two groups switched so all participants had a chance to work in both environments.

First, participants had to figure out what they were seeing. On the Katy, they used field scopes and more complicated devices, such as a microscope connected to a television monitor, to identify material collected from the bay by seines and dredges. Occasionally, though, no one--not even the Marine Institute staff--could identify what they had caught: "That was one reason the boat was such a good experience. We saw in concrete ways that everyone is learning all the time. We could go inside the cabin and look at things on the monitor and use the reference books that were stored there. Even more important we could talk to the staff people and to each other and work out our ideas about what these creatures were and what they did."

On the Padre Island beach, participants learned to use "normal stuff" as instruments for exploring. A piece of PVC pipe, marked off in increments, helped to establish the elevation of the beach. Participants used a measuring tape to measure distances and, then, with the horizon as a level, used the pipe to establish elevation. Careful field notes enabled them to develop a profile of the beach, dunes, and landward side.

"No one said to us, 'This is the way things are some place else,'" one teacher said. The learning was based on what could be seen, heard, touched in the immediate environment. "We only focused on what was there. We were forced to focus on what was under our feet and immediately around us."

Picture of people measuring things on the beach

This field experience not only emphasized the immediate area around the participants but also brought home the concept of the ecosystem. On the morning of the third day, participants went as one group to the Lydia Ann Lighthouse. In the past, this lighthouse had guided ships from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay. Now the old structure is several miles from the existing channel. From atop the building, the participants could see how the bay, the marshes, the dunes, and the landward side of the dunes all came together to form one large system. "We could see how each part survived independently but also depended on the other parts."

"One thing that really stuck with me," a teacher reported, "was seeing a huge ship go out of the channel [two miles away]." As the ship left the channel, it pushed tons of water ahead of it out to sea. After the ship had passed, water from surrounding creeks and other tributaries tried to fill the channel up again, but then, as the ship moved on out to sea, the sea water would rush back in. Eventually, the channel looked as full of water as it had ever been--and it was. "That whole process helped me remember that the system will keep trying to come to equilibrium and that all the parts contribute to each other."


Many field experiences lack time for reflection, even though learners must mull over the raw data they collect if they are to reach an understanding. During the Port Aransas meeting, a variety of reflection activities continued throughout the meeting.

The project-generated checklists were ongoing reflection tools. As the experience unfolded, participants could consult the list to see if the steps they had outlined were being met. They could also compare their experiences with those of others using the checklist as a common frame.

A different kind of reflection was the simulation of a town meeting, which gave the participants the opportunity to apply concrete information in a situation that resembled events of daily life. As one of the cumulating events at the end of the week, this simulation helped participants engage in a process requiring thought about how they would apply their observations and learning (see the activities page for a more complete description of this activity.)


On the last day of the meeting, the participants presented fifteen-minute illustrations of the process and components, inputs and outputs of the barrier island ecosystem. Groups presented their findings in skits or dramatizations. Whether presented as interpretative dance or mock television reporting, the models displayed the participants' understanding of the systems involved in the creation and preservation of the barrier islands.

Using a rubric of five traits, each with four criteria, participants considered how well each skit or dramatization portrayed an understanding of the Texas barrier island ecosystem. Since everyone had a copy of the traits and their accompanying criteria, the learning targets had been clear to all participants from the beginning of the field work. Participants used the rubrics as guides for self-assessment during the field work and to assess presentations on the last day. The presentations were concrete experiences that helped the whole group discuss performance assessment.

No matter what their ages, all learners need to connect field work to classroom learning, and assessment is a good means for helping them to see the connections. If learners keep the two separate, understanding gained in school may be harder to put into practice and the world outside the classroom may remain distinct from the science and mathematics taught there.

Putting the Learning into Practice

After returning to her classroom one Oklahoma teacher reports that, since the Port Aransas trip, she has focused more on her immediate locale for teaching students science. "In the past I tended to ignore the ground around us. Now I ask the students how many flowers they see in the vacant lot next door. When they tell me they see three or four, we go over there and get down on the ground and really look. They are astounded at how many flowers there really are in such a small space. We had not really been looking at what was around us."

"It's amazing really how many students have never even picked up a crawdad. Some have never even seen one because they don't really look around them. Schools don't help them learn how to look around them, at what is in their immediate world." This Oklahoma teacher said that her experiences in Port Aransas "opened my eyes and helped me open their eyes and change the students' idea of what makes up the environment." After she put into practice some of the ideas developed during the Gulf Coast experience, she found that her students not only noticed more in classroom field trips but also voluntarily brought in items they discovered on their own--unusual bugs, strange plants, interesting rocks. Her experiences on the Texas coast had been relevant to her teaching life in Oklahoma far from the sea.

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2000 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Credits
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