Schools’ quest for rigor, emphasis on testing even drive field trips

Students tromping through landfills. Hiking Stone Mountain with geologists. Trying on hazmat suits at the CDC, which protect against Ebola and other life-threatening contagions.

These aren’t your mother’s school field trips to the zoo or amusement park. They’re just a few examples of more non-traditional, academically oriented field trips that have emerged in recent years as educators and students face more standardized tests and pressure to meet increasingly rigorous standards.

While students still attend “reward” field trips to pizza parlors, mini golf or other entertainment sites for things like perfect attendance or high test scores, schools in Georgia and other states have turned to trips that highlight social concerns such as the environment, recycling, racism and diversity. Field trips are also tightly in line with curriculum that’s being covered in the classroom, educators say.

“There’s more pressure for them (students) to be in school because there is increasing emphasis on trying to maximize math and reading test scores,” said Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas who’s studied school field trips.

“Every minute taken away from that activity is harder to justify because schools have become more focused on trying to improve their measures of achievement … School administrators feel pressured to pay attention to things that are measured.”

Educators in metro Atlanta say these more sophisticated, enriching field trips can often offer students concrete examples of what they’re studying in the classroom.

“It’s important for them (students) to learn the standards and perform well on these standardized tests,” said Jason Marshall, principal at Fernbank Elementary in DeKalb County. “But I think the way we’ve always approached it is the day they take a test is really just a snapshot of what they learn. We’re interested in them learning much more about their community … their state, country, world and how all those things are interconnected.”

At Fernbank, third-graders studying ecosystems and the environmental impact of landfills took a field trip last month to the Seminole Landfill, where they learned about the importance of recycling.

Owen Blount, a student who attended the field trip, said students saw a big truck dumping trash into the landfill and there were a number of items that could have been recycled.

“There’s all these acres of land just being filled up with trash, and we can prevent some of that if we recycle more,” Blount said. “We could translate what we’d been learning in the classroom, and see it actually there in person.”

Seventh-graders at Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Fulton County recently concluded a study on the Ebola virus with a field trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Museum. The CDC museum is at a campus away from the actual CDC lab facilities and Emory hospital, where Ebola patients in Atlanta have received treatment.

Before the field trip, students engaged in a coordinated set of lessons. In language arts, students read the non-fiction book “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston; in social studies, students explored Africa and wrote a paper on the history of health issues and the influence of government and politics on diseases like AIDS and Ebola.

Science activities included creating public health posters on Ebola, simulating how viruses can spread. Math classes examined similarities and differences between viruses and bacteria and how they affect living cells.

During the field trip to the CDC museum, several students tried on hazmat suits and learned the steps for preventing contamination.

“One of the things we’re trying to do with our field trips and education in general is to teach our kids that this is their world and they’re the ones who are going to … have to take care of it in the future,” said Pam Wright, one of teachers who organized the field trip. “And to help them … learn how they can impact the world.”

Greene, the professor who’s studied field trips, said, “There’s a lot of learning that can happen outside the traditional classroom. Our communities are filled with institutions and opportunities for that learning. We should take advantage of all those institutions.”

Yet, he said because money for field trips is typically scarce at many schools across the U.S., more enriching, academically oriented field trips have had to compete with “reward” field trips.

“Because of testing pressure, schools feel like they ought to reward students for a job well done,” Greene said.

At the Museum School of Avondale Estates, a charter school in DeKalb County, field trips – or what the school calls “learning expeditions” — play an integral role in the teaching process, with the school partnering with close to a dozen local museums and institutions. Students learn about a range of topics and issues, from the civil rights movement to how the economy functions to how scientists work in labs.

One of the more popular trips has students trekking up Stone Mountain, to study geology and learn about Native American history surrounding the area, among other topics. The next Stone Mountain trip is planned in December.

“It makes the learning much more real,” said Katherine Kelbaugh, principal at the Museum School. “As a result the students internalize the information so much better and they truly get it and remember it.”

“Our model in our school is built on real-world, hands-on learning as opposed to students just sitting in class and being passive learners of information through textbooks.”

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