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.
high school science teacher
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.
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.
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
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."
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
"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.