Designing Geoscience Field Trips for the K-12 Classroom

TARIN H. WEISS ( is an associate professor in the Chemical and Physical Science Department, Westfield State University, Westfield, MA

The field trip is the classic geological learning experience — and ubiquitous in higher education. However, its frequency is waning in K-12 settings (Greene et al., 2014; Jason, 2011). During recessionary times, up to 34% of school administrators reported eliminating field trips in favor of more time and resources for test preparation (Ellerson, 2015). This is an unwelcome trend as many learners benefit from out-of-school experiences, both in the cognitive and affective domains (Nabors et al., 2009; Whitesell, 2015; Greene et al., 2014; Hill et al., 2006). Because field trips are second-nature to geoscientists, we can help buck their diminishing trend in the K-12 curriculum by proposing local, affordable, and educationally stimulating field trips.

David Mogk (2012, p. 5) asserts that, "Many of us started careers in geology because we were attracted to field work. No matter what the geologic setting of our present work environment there is the possibility of sharing our field experiences with students. Our enthusiasm for field work should be contagious." How can we capitalize on our enthusiasm for being in the field? Most geologists have a favorite area near their home or institution that reveals an inspiring glacial or bedrock feature, surface water environment, or eye-catching landscape. And, in many cases, these localities are already part of a field trip we take with our own students. Our K-12 teacher colleagues are hungry for this information and eager to enhance their curricula with local field trips. Therefore it behooves us in the geoscience community to support local teachers by designing, sharing, and collaborating on local and affordable field trips for K-12 students.

What Teachers Want in A Field Trip

In 2011-2013, Ohio's COSI (Center of Science and Industry) surveyed over 400 teachers to better understand their field trip needs (Wojton, 2013). Multiple studies concluded that teachers want to bring students to affordable and stimulating environments where they acquire knowledge and skills that connect to the curriculum. Teachers also want pre- and post-trip information that provides field trip logistics, expectations, learning goals, and content background. The studies reported that in the first half of the year teachers are looking for trips that enhance curricular learning, while closer to June they are willing to take students on stand-alone end-of-the-year type trips. Local field trips can certainly meet teachers' reported needs; they are affordable, provide opportunities to see the familiar in new and intriguing ways, and provide authentic phenomena and objects that promote scientific practices and learning of content.

Connecting Field Trips to Curricular Standards

Field trips as learning tools fall under the umbrella of place-based education. Place-based education focuses on local areas as educational resources and promotes hands-on, experiential learning in authentic settings (Sobel, 2004). Place-based education is reported to result in long-lasting and meaningful understandings of key concepts for many types of learners (Ballentyne and Packer, 2009). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), now in use by 38 states (Workosky, 2018), endorse place-based learning because it inherently provides relevant and interdisciplinary opportunities to do and learn science.

So the challenge for field trip designers is to explicitly link field trip learning goals to the NGSS. There are several ways to do this. For one, the NGSS website ( provides a search tool (Quick Search of the NGSS) that can be queried by key word, grade, and / or dimension and results in a listing of performance expectations (i.e., standards). Performance expectations are labeled by code (grade-core idea and sub-idea) and are statements of what students should know and be able to do. For example, a search on the word "water" for a 4th grade field trip investigating the effect of a stream on the environment links to, among others, the performance expectation 4-ESS2-1: "Make observations and / or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation." In addition, each NGSS-adopting state has a current edition of its K-12 science standards (in Word or pdf) on its state education website that can be downloaded and searched by word or phrase. Teachers should know the standards that drive their year's curriculum and can use / modify a designed field trip as a resource to ensure it meets district-mandated curriculum standards.


The NGSS website ( is a user-friendly searchable interface that explains the new standards and how they are constructed out of three dimensions: cross-cutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and disciplinary core ideas. Cross-cutting concepts are big broad interdisciplinary themes (patterns, cause and effect, scale / proportion / quantity, systems and system models, energy and matter, structure and function, stability and change) that frame the enterprises of science and engineering and, while sequenced, weave through K-12 learning outcomes. Science and engineering practices describe the types of inquiry abilities that students should acquire and use over time as they learn core ideas. The eight practices are: asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, constructing explanations and designing solutions, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. The disciplinary core ideas describe foundational content knowledge within the domains of Earth and Space Science (ESS), Life Science (LS), Physical Science (PS), and Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science (ETS). Each core idea has sub-ideas that break down content into sub-disciplines. For example, the ESS sub-ideas are: the universe and its stars, Earth and the solar system, the history of planet Earth, Earth materials and systems, plate tectonics and large-scale system interactions, the roles of water in Earth's surface processes, weather and climate, biogeology, natural resources, natural hazards, human impacts on Earth systems, and global climate change.

Choosing the Location and Focus of the Field Trip

To benefit a K-12 classroom, the field trip location must be accessible and safe for students. Important first considerations are the length of the trip, the terrain to be traversed, safety, parking / fee issues, and availability of / need for restrooms (Nabors et al., 2009). In addition, logistics of site accessibility for students with disabilities must be taken into account and commensurate activities developed. Once a field trip site is deemed appropriate for K-12 students, its focus can be framed.

Scientists investigating a new field area often focus on discovery with the aim of generating observations, finding patterns, and constructing or using existing hypotheses to explain phenomena (Dusch and Bybee, 2014). The focus of a field trip for students should be similarly situated (Mogk and Goodwin, 2012). From this context, the discovered phenomena become a problem to be solved. By problematizing what students observe, they have opportunities to formulate their own questions and "represent and talk about the data and evidence" (Duschl and Bybee, 2014, p. 6).

Asking simple questions is an effective way to engage students in discovering and investigating field trip phenomena. This type of questioning can direct students' attention ("Do you notice...?" "What happened here?"), require them to measure and count ("How much...?" "How many...?"), and motivate them to compare ("In what ways are ___ alike and different?"), take action ("What happens if you...?") and problem solve ("Can you find a way to....?") (Elstgeest, 1985). A question of this type also can serve as the essential question of the field trip. Essential questions are introduced through pre-trip activities and reflected upon during and after the field experience. They are open ended and intellectually engaging and point learning toward important core ideas, raise additional questions, and require justification along with answers (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Fostering this type of exploratory engagement in authentic settings through the use of essential questions promotes students' development and use of models, hypothesis-building, and investigation of phenomena.

A Framework for K-12 Field Trip Design

Planning and documenting a field trip for a K-12 classroom requires a holistic perspective that provides the teacher with (1) logistics, (2), learning goals, and (3) recommendations for pre- / during- / post-field trip activities.

It may be best to initially design a field trip for upper elementary students (ages 10-12), knowing that a trip can be modified for older / younger children in the future. This age is recommended because in early adolescence most students have developed the strength and coordination needed to hike to a field site. Most preteens can also interact appropriately with peers, learn and apply new skills, think pseudo-abstractly (though many will struggle with making inferences and reasoning hypothetically), begin to interpret observations, and identify causes and effects (Early Adolescence Developmental Milestones).

Teachers will first want to determine if the field trip is possible for their students' age and abilities. Therefore, field trip designers need to layout all logistical considerations related to accessibility and safety. If a field site is not accessible to all students, alternatives to the designed trip should be sought. Alternatives, based on the needs of a specific class, might entail identification of outdoor phenomena at handicapped-accessible local parks or nature areas, as well as safe parking lots or roadways. Another option is to create a virtual field trip to a site; the Class Flow website ( is a good source for creating interactive lessons that can house virtual field trips. Next, teachers look for intended learning goals and the activities of the field trip. Field trip designers need to clearly articulate what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of the experience (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Three to four learning goals are sufficient for a short field trip experience and cognitive, psychomotor, and affective goals may all be listed. Designers should utilize the NGSS website to link learning goals to specific performance expectations and provide background information with an overview of suggested pre-, during-, and post-field learning activities.

Once the K-12 field trip is designed there are a few ways to initiate communication with teachers. First, call the local school principal and meet to discuss your field trip idea. The principal, by definition, is the school's educational leader and most principals are very enthusiastic about developing partnerships between scientists and their school. They will direct you to specific teachers and help facilitate collaboration and planning. Also, many college-level teacher education faculty know local teachers and can recommend public school contacts. Finally, most states have a science teachers' association that holds annual meetings. A field trip idea can be presented at a local science teachers' meeting to foster interest and make connections.


The National Research Council's Framework for Science Education (2012, p. 26) states that "...learning about science...involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry" for the purpose of constructing explanations about the natural world. Geoscientists act on these assertions in the design of effective field trips because the experience is set up for the acquisition of knowledge through the methods of scientific investigation. Our expertise in this area is greatly needed by our K-12 teacher colleagues. Hopefully, the field trip design framework described by and linked within this article results in more young learners getting outside to investigate the question, "What happened here?"


Ballentyne, R., and Packer, J., 2009, Introducing a fifth pedagogy: Experience-based strategies for facilitating learning in natural environments: Environmental Education Research, v. 15, p. 243-262.

Duschl, R., and Bybee, R., 2014, Planning and carrying out investigations: An entry to learning and to teacher professional development around NGSS science and engineering practices: International Journal of STEM Education, v. 1, p. 1-9.

Early Adolescence Developmental Milestones: National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning: (accesssed July 2018).

Ellerson, N.M., 2015, Education cuts have yet to heal: How the economic recession continues: AASA, The School Superintendent's Association, p. 3-10.

Elstgeest, J., 1985, Teacher-asked questions, in Harlen, W., ed., Primary Science: Taking the Plunge: Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, p. 36-46.

Greene, J., Kisida, B., and Bowen, D., 2014, The educational value of field trips, Education Next, v. 14: (accessed July 2018).

Hill, F., Kawagley, O., and Barnhardt, R., 2006, Alaska rural systemic initiative: Final report, phase II, 2000-2005: National Science Foundation Final Report,

Koebler, J., 2011, Teachers: Don't Overlook Value of Field Trips: U.S. News: blogs/high-school-notes/2011/12/12/teachers-dontoverlook-value-of-field-trips (accessed July 2018).

Kaszczak, L., More than meets the eye: The importance of making observations: Summer Research Program for Science Teachers: (accessed July 2018).

Mogk, D., 2012, NAGT Workshops Mineralogy Activities/ Field Notes: SERC: Revised_JBF.pdf (accessed July 2018).

Mogk, D., and Goodwin, C., 2012, Learning in the field: Synthesis of research on thinking and learning in the geosciences, in Kastens, K. and Manduca, C., eds. Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Boulder, CO, Geological Society of America, p. 131-164.

National Research Council, 2012, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas: Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 400 p.

Nabors, M., Edwards, L., and Murray, R., 2009, What research tells us and what site coordinators have to say: Education, v. 129, p. 661-667.

NGSS Lead States, 2013, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States: The National Academies Press: (accessed November 2018).

Sobel, D., 2004, Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities (third edition): Great Barrington, MA, The Orion Society, p. 96.

Whitesell, E., 2015, A day at the museum: The impact of field trips to informal science education institutions on middle school science achievement: NYU Steinhardt Institute for Education and Social Policy IESP Working Paper 03-15, 46 p.

Wiggins, G., and McTighe, J., 2005, Understanding by Design (second edition): Alexandria, VA, ASCD, p. 370.

Wojton, M., 2013, Field trips: What teachers told us: Dimensions ASTC: (accessed July 2018).

Workosky, C., 2018, Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry not memorization: NSTA NGSS blog: (accessed June 2018).