Field trips can get students excited about life science

08/21/2012  |  BY CHRISTINE LEWIS
Field Trip Destination

Under the instruction of two experienced cave biologists, 15 students suited up in coveralls, donned caving helmets with battery-operated lights and climbed down into a wild cave in western Virginia to study rare cave creatures in their natural habitat. They had already spent four hours that morning traveling across the state by bus and they would not get back to the school parking lot where their parents were waiting until 10 p.m. that evening. 

Despite the long and tiring travel time, this study trip would result in an exciting learning experience they would never forget and may never have the chance to repeat.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every student could participate in this kind of learning opportunity? For the few students who can afford environmental science study trips, an enrichment experience like this can be life changing. Although teachers and their school systems recognize the value of this kind of learning, most are just not financially able to provide these experiences for the majority of their students. Some find it difficult to free up the non-instructional time it takes just to get students out in the field and back.

Since the 1980s the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) has been conducting daylong and over-night field study trips for middle and high school students. Those students who take part in these field experiences study the biology and geology of wild caves, engage in freshwater aquatic studies of an ancient coastal plain cypress swamp, search for fossils in fossil beds that are 3.5 to 5.0 million years old, study mineralogy and collect native minerals and rocks at a private mine site, or survey the aquatic habitats of a Chesapeake Bay marsh by canoe.

It is unfortunate that only a small percentage of students can do this due to limited time or financial resources. To address this need the VLM created museum-based experiences for students that simulate elements of our in-the-field habitat studies. As a natural history “living” museum, the VLM showcases live, native Virginia plants and animals in their natural environments. In a single visit, students can take a virtual trip across Virginia to study the biology, geology and ecology of a wide range of habitats. They may start their visit by strolling through an indoor cypress swamp where catfish, sunfish and gar swim and an alligator floats lazily in the slow moving water while turtles bask on a sunny log. As students enter the indoor mountain cove habitat they come face-to-face with a two-story waterfall that drops into a fast moving mountain stream. Small fish swim against the current and trout lazily navigate through a deep mountain pond. Ferns, moss and other mountain plants thrive in the cool moist air. In another indoor exhibit, students walk through a realistic recreation of a limestone cave where transparent blind cave fish swim among drowned stalagmites, a live pack rat ‘decorates’ its burrow and colorful cave formations line the walls. Outside, along the edge of a freshwater pond and in the surrounding forest exhibits, life is constantly changing with the seasons. Spring and fall migrant birds stop for rest and food on their long journey. Along the path at the edge of the pond museum interpreters invite students to use environmental sampling equipment and field microscopes to collect and look at plankton or perform chemical analyses of water quality.

When the students return to school they will have observed plant and animal survival adaptations and life cycle stages, and seen a wide variety of living things that are characteristic of several habitats — all within the space of a few hours and at an affordable cost.

Most schools are located within a reasonable distance of a science museum or zoo. As part of their educational mission, many of these institutions work closely with science curriculum specialists of local school systems to correlate their exhibits with the school’s curriculum strands and state standards of learning objectives. Increasingly, museums and zoos are exhibiting live animals in close approximations of their native habitats. They may also feature and interpret unique botanical communities and other habitats like ponds and forests on their campuses. For teachers this is an opportunity to allow their students to explore several habitats in a single visit.

Investigate your community’s resources. Call the institution’s education department and discuss the topics or concepts you want your students to focus on. The museum or zoo’s professional educators can guide you to specific exhibits that best illustrate those concepts. Then ask if the museum will allow you to make a professional visit at no charge to become better acquainted with the exhibits before you bring your students. If this is possible, and many institutions allow this, take advantage of your pre-visit to create a customized focus guide for your students.

Getting your students excited about life science by facilitating a field trip that stimulates their curiosity and immerses them in the natural world doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

Christine Lewis is the education director at the Virginia Living Museum. The Virginia Living Museum is located in Newport News, Va. Call 757-595-9135 or visit for more information.
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