Reinventing the field trip

Using museums to integrate interdisciplinary curricula

03/21/2011  |  Dena Bush
Museum Destination

Students work together to use various skills while on tour at Arcadia Archaeological Mill.

The school fieldtrip is an experience that perhaps all children remember. Yet in today’s climate the school field trip often falls to the wayside in the wake of standardized testing, high-stakes performance demands and the current economy. Simultaneously, there seems to be a renewed pedagogical emphasis on integrating interdisciplinary curricula and museum education professionals are realizing that they are being held to a new standard of accountability. Is the traditional field trip still significant or is it time to reinvent the practice? The experience of the past may or may not have guaranteed the accomplishment of learning objectives, it may have simply been a fun outing. However, the concept of taking students out into the “field” is still very much relevant because it remains rich in potential. One may argue that the fundamental goals of interdisciplinary instruction and museum education are seemingly symbiotic and that if educators and museum professionals seize this opportunity to revitalize school and museum collaboration, an environment will be created where students can thrive.

The necessity of creating programming to meet educational standards and the importance of interdisciplinary curricula is currently an ongoing discussion among museum professionals. The academic background and training of most museum staff is grounded in their area of expertise, whether it be history, science or art. They are doing their homework, though! In the current world of fieldtrips, museum staffs are creating experiences that teachers cannot reproduce in the classroom and are developing lessons and programming that target and augment mandated standards. Museum educators are enriching experiences by incorporating pre-visit materials, hands-on activities and opportunities for reflection and evaluation. It is also favorable to provide students with clipboards, worksheets and pencils, thereby truly creating a classroom without walls. Teachers now find a wealth of ideas within museums that allow them to integrate not only the social sciences, but all forms of disciplines. Time to create lessons and class scheduling, two of the major challenges to the implementation of interdisciplinary lessons, will always be an issue, but teachers may find answers to such obstacles right in their community at museums. Museum staffs are reinventing the classic field trip by changing the nature of our partnerships with regional schools. To fight for relevance, museums are adapting their own programming and lessons to meet these needs.

For example, at Historic Pensacola Village, a museum complex in the heart of downtown Pensacola, a teacher may take the lesson plan on the 1832 Old Christ Church and transition it into a historic preservation and city government issue. Imagine a group of students that are actively engaged through research, debate, and role-playing as an Architectural Review Board or city council, discussing the problem at hand. Students are learning not only the history and layout of their community, but they are utilizing skills in civics and government, research and technology, writing, public speaking and teamwork, just to name a few. At Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site in Santa Rosa County, Florida, while students are learning about the history of one of the largest 19th century, water-powered, industrial complexes in Northwest Florida, they are also in the middle of a unique archaeological resource and wetland ecosystem where they can also practice their science and math skills. 

Museums are branching out in programming in order to meet the challenges of “not enough time” and funding. The development of classroom presentations and rentable trucks are moving to the forefront of museum programming. Granted, one of the downsides of this type of the programming is that students may not visit museum sites; however, presenting the museum’s interpretation and reaching educational goals typically outweigh this concern. Technology has made it even easier for museum educators to be present in any classroom, regardless of location. Rentable museum trunks are a beneficial alternative to site visits, filled with appropriate reproductions, books, images, activities and relevant lesson plans. Museum educators can also easily take these trunks and come into the classroom. Today, museum education staffs are looking toward more ambitious collaborations with teachers and administrators in addition to regular programs.

Field trips to Historic Pensacola Village have been utilized by teachers for over three decades. It perhaps speaks volumes that many adults reminiscence over their own personal trips as students to the same site and are amazed by what knowledge they have retained after so many years. This is not surprising considering that students often make remarks during tours that underscores the benefit of learning within a historic environment, whether it is a furnished historic home, museum or participating in a Living History program. A school fieldtrip can bring history, or any subject, to life.

Dena Bush is Museum Education Supervisor at West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc., managing the educational programming for The T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and Historic Pensacola Village. For further information visit
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