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School Field Trips Aren't What They Used To Be

Karly Moll, USA Today

School Field Trips Aren't What They Used To Be

When Nina Corley, a high school history teacher in Galveston, Texas, prepares her students for a field trip, more often than not these days she sets up a large monitor in the front of her classroom and tunes in to a live broadcast.

In November, Corley's students virtually explored the late 1700s to learn about the French and Indian War. This month, they will be learning about 18th-century music while playing "Colonial Idol" through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Emmy Award-winning Electronic Field Trips series.

After about two hours of virtual tours of the Virginia-based museum's historical content, students get to ask questions of experts in a session brought to them by Colonial Williamsburg's live dial-in service.

Amid tight testing requirements implemented by No Child Left Behind, budget cuts and the increased prominence of technology, school field trips are not what they used to be, school administrators say. National museums and school districts are adapting to the transformation. For some, that means providing sophisticated digital experiences. For others, it means finding ways for actual trips to still make sense.

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"Field trips are absolutely suffering," says Mike Kaspar, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, "We are seeing it more and more, especially with the financial crisis and budget cuts. Students who need field trips the most aren't getting them. To me, that's the exact opposite of what needs to be happening."

Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, a charitable partner of the National Park Service that supports national parks, blames the decline of the "simple field trip" on lack of money. "We have buses sitting in schoolyards all day long. There's not enough money to pay for the driver, the chaperone, the bus that is sitting there to take the kids out into the field, making field trips a big challenge," he says.

The solution, Mulholland says, is "providing that incremental funding to get kids out of the classroom and get them where they can experience what they're learning."

In an effort to help, the National Park Foundation created "Ticket to Ride" last October, a program that provides transportation and lunch for students to experience a field trip for a lower cost at one of 400 parks. The program has brought about 40,000 students to the parks, Mulholland says..

Despite such efforts, the convenience and cost efficiency of virtual field trips are hard to deny, says Corley, an advocate for virtual field trips in her classroom.

Several museums have made lesson plans and tours available online, she says. The reason for virtual field trips, however, is also linked to geographic barriers and the advanced nature of the Internet, says Jim Bradley, communications director at Colonial Williamsburg.

"An on-site field trip generally almost always has a very specific educational objective," Bradley says. "The electronic field trips have a broader educational objective that has been tuned to satisfy universal standards of learning throughout all of the states, as opposed to a particular educational objective by one school that comes to visit us."

Corley, who has 25 years of teaching experience, has been using Colonial Williamsburg's electronic field trips in her classroom for more than a decade. "They (students) are able to watch what's going on, ask follow-up questions and play games all in one sitting. It really gets them involved," she says.

Annie Vieau, 10, one of Corley's students, says she would rather participate in a virtual field trip than read a textbook. "I think it is so much more fun," Vieau says. "My favorite one (field trip) was when we learned about slavery. When I started to learn about it, I thought, 'Why would people do this?' The video made it easy for me to understand how slaves were treated."

She says she can't remember the last time she went on a traditional field trip, while she has participated in between 20 to 25 virtual field trips. "I think one time we went to a park somewhere, but I'm not sure," she says. "I would like to actually visit Colonial Williamsburg one day."

Corley agrees an on-site field trip is equally important, if not more so, than a virtual experience.

"Of course I would rather physically take my students on the field trip," she says. "However, it's not always an option. The cost of gas and limitations in the classroom because of budgets make it extremely difficult."

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which saw a decline in visits to the museum starting in 2000, has tailored on-site field trips to correlate with school testing and federal and state initiatives regarding education, according to Anne Canty, senior vice president of communications. The museum has worked with teachers and administrators to ensure that the trips are relevant to the work that needs to be done in the classroom, Canty says.