Friday, June 3, 2011

Field Trip Perspectives: The Virginia Aquarium (Part 2 of 3)

Museum: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Audience: 5th grade
Format: 3-4 hour self-guided tour
I traveled with my son’s 5th grade to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. It was a major trip, and the school hired coaches. This fact, in-and-of itself, garners a lot of excitement among the kids. After all, it’s not every day you can “do your business” on a moving bus. Plus, since it’s May in 5th grade, this is also the last elementary school field trip for these guys (one of the reasons I wanted to go – childhood is quickly evaporating for my 11 year old!). As chaperones, we were given our list of students, along with the teacher’s cell phone number in case of an emergency. This was to be a self-guided tour throughout this museum with multiple buildings and a huge outdoor component. As a chaperone to five boys, I knew my job would consist largely of “herding cats” all day, and doing my best to keep up. The teachers had downloaded an instructional worksheet from the museum’s website for the kids to use while touring the museum. As a chaperone, it was good to know that I could use this tool to help focus a child who might begin to wander or lose interest (for me, this was not an issue  – my group was incredibly interested, darting from one exhibit to another and truly reading/trying/learning from each).

The school is extremely small as far as local zoning. There is only one classroom full of fifth graders from near the school. So the county uses this school as a “zone” school for special programs. So in addition to the local kids, who are racially & ethnically diverse but, largely, come from economically modest households, there is a large number of kids from 20+ other elementary schools who attend this school because they are in a “gifted” zone program. This group, too, is racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. In addition to that, the school has a zone program for deaf students.
An Aside
This makes me think about school field trip booking procedures (OK, I’m diverging for a moment from my perspective as a chaperone) – because, had this been a guided educational program led by museum educators or docents, they would surely have noticed that this was an extremely diverse group that required various special teaching considerations. I wonder how much of this type of information is gathered by most museums prior to a trip? Surely it would be helpful to know who you are dealing with, and how to best accommodate their needs. The kids’ needs and the diversity in the types of learners was not a problem b/c of the self-guided nature of the tour. That is one benefit to such a structure for a field trip – different learners will walk away with different experiences, based upon their interests, abilities, etc. At a place like the Virginia Aquarium, there were plenty of things to interest different kids.

Our group hustled through the Marsh Pavilion to the aviary, where they picked up the identification sheets so they could figure out what types of birds they were seeing. In the Pavilion, they loved seeing the snapping turtle, fiddler crabs, and seahorses. We had an hour in this section of the museum prior to eating lunch out back in the shade. The kids’ enthusiasm was only slightly tempered by hunger by the time we sat down to eat. One in my group was celebrating a birthday, so soon Krispy Kreme donuts were passed around and songs were sung. The day was not only filled with learning, it was festive and celebratory. The kids were (no wonder!) in a great mood and so happy to be together outside of school.
After lunch, we headed through the outside areas on our way to the main building. We could have spent a lot more time at each of the outdoor stations, but as chaperone I knew that there was a lot to see in the Center, and I also knew what time the busses would be picking us up, so we chose one or two stops along the way and pushed on so that we’d have plenty of time to explore once we were inside.
In the exhibit areas, one thing stood out to me (I had not been on a 5th grade field trip since I taught 5th grade back in the mid-90’s): the technology. The kids were not only interacting with the exhibits in the way that you’d imagine (touching, reading, trying the experiments, pointing out the fish), but many of the kids had some sort of technology – whether that be a phone with photo and internet capabilities, an ipod touch, or a digital camera. Some of the kids were looking up different marine creatures on the internet to learn more about them while in the exhibit halls. I overheard one girl, when we passed through one of the halls, comment, “Shoot! I just lost my signal!”

An Aside: II
The technology that gets brought into museums by school groups is, of course, rather a new phenomenon, but it is one that museum professionals can consider when exhibit planning. Should all of your galleries be WiFi areas? Should there be QR codes at different stations for those who have the capability to use their mobile device as a learning tool? What about the use of iPads in galleries? There has been a lot of buzz in the world of museum education about how these devices can be utilized in a 21st century museum. Of course, not all age groups and demographics will have mobile devices (certainly in our diverse group, there were many kids who did not bring such a tool), so there is a balance to be struck between taking advantage of technological opportunities and serving all audiences.
Exhausted, with our minds buzzing with all we had seen over the past few hours, we entered the area where the kids could “pet” the stingrays. For my son, this was the highlight. It also provided a stop where the kids all slowed down a little, stayed longer than at a lot of the exhibits, and quieted down as they observed and interacted with the stingrays. It was a good ending. As we left the museum, I was wondering how (and if) the teachers were planning to “unpack the experience” for the kids once back at school. Processing ALL THE INFORMATION is key so that the group can get the most from their experience as possible. This is especially important on a self-guided tour.

An Aside: III
If your museum offers a self-guided tour, you may consider offering post-visit activities (online or otherwise) that assist in the “unpacking” of the experience. What I mean by that is that the experience itself is rather short, very filled with energy and excitement, and continually active. Educational research consistently shows that, to complement that type of experience, students need the opportunity to reflect, analyze, make connections, and extend their experience. While many of the post-visit activities I’ve seen focus on kids recalling what they’ve seen or classifying items, a simple, open-ended journal prompt that allows the kids to reflect back on an aspect of their visit, or an assignment that asks the kids to create a short instructional video about the experience for a younger student to view, allows the kids a little more leeway as far as reflection and consideration of the museum’s collection or program. (And if museum educators could have a chance to see products such as this, they’d provide invaluable insight for planning and evaluation of programs).

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