From Field Trip to Field Work

Why educators in Idaho decided to turn 8- and 9-year-olds into museum curators, and what their students and colleagues learned along the way.

One spring evening, about 100 third graders at Barbara Morgan STEM Academy near Boise, Idaho, invited the community to visit the museum they had built in their cafeteria. Yes, you read that right. A group of 8- and 9-year-olds had conceived, planned, and designed the exhibits the community was about to see.

The theme was machines, and each exhibit showcased how a machine had addressed some kind of problem. To learn more about machines, the students had visited the Discovery Center of Idaho. But as the partners in this project had hoped, the trip was more than a field trip. It was “field work.”

This subtle shift was transformative.  By going to the museum with a mission in mind, the kids focused more, zeroing in on specific machines and seeking answers to the questions they needed answered.

As the project partners wrote in their final report, “With the expectation they would design their own science center in mind during their visit to the museum, eight and nine year olds interacted with the exhibits there through a different lens, that of a creator.”

The youth returned to their classrooms and created more than 50 exhibits, from a pulley system on the bed of a toy truck to inclined planes that sent cars zipping off tables. Some of the displays had technical difficulties, but no matter. Every student was an expert in explaining how simple machines worked and why.

For the teachers and Intersections partners, the museum did even more.

“Creating a science center in the cafeteria started to shift perceptions about what can and should happen in school. Instead of being a place where children learn about science, [school] became a place where they did science and taught their friends and family about it.”

The museum was also the culmination of a fruitful process of discovery for students, teachers, and the Intersections partnership between the Discovery Center of Idaho and the Boise State Writing Project. The museum and the writing team had partnered to learn how they could integrate literacy and science instruction in spaces beyond the classroom.

Instead of being a place where children learn about science, [school] became a place where they did science and taught their friends and family about it.”

They quickly learned that to build a sustainable partnership, they needed first to promote mutual goals and shared values of the group.

“Starting a partnership by focusing on a specific project is attractive and ‘easy,’” they later wrote, “because it engages you in something concrete and feels productive. However, this approach is limiting and misses the real purposes for collaborating.”

To discover common areas of intersection meant answering some basic but crucial questions. Who are we, what is our purpose, who do we serve, and why do we matter? And where are the intersections and shared values between the two groups?

“That approach,” they wrote, “launched a more fruitful and sustainable partnership in the end.”

By answering those questions, they landed on the goal of creating professional development opportunities for teachers to rethink literacy and science in thought-provoking ways. That meant helping educators see the Discovery Center of Idaho as a partner, rather than as a location for a field trip.

The third graders’ museum was not the only project undertaken, but it is a strong example of how a teacher used the museum’s resources in new ways to inspire students.

“For the educators,” the partners wrote, “they will always look at learning spaces differently. All of them have considered how they modify their classroom spaces to be more conducive to learning about science. They also have practice at thinking about how to integrate literacy with science and other topics in a meaningful way.”

The museum staff also changed. “Using literacy tools,” they wrote, “we were able to look at our spaces through a new lens, inspiring creative thought about how we can improve our spaces for learners of all ages.”

Educators are often isolated. Partnerships like this one in Idaho can help create connections in meaningful ways, creating a network of community science and literacy educators in both formal and informal spaces where youth can learn.


Shared Inquiry: A Means to Building Sustainable Partnerships between Organizations