Researchers to Use $1.94M Grant to Improve Environmental Education Field Trips

Staff Report From South Carolina CEO

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Watching students wade through a swamp never gets old for Bob Powell. He’s accompanied students on what educators in Everglades National Park call a “slough slog.” If they don’t hesitate to dip the tip of a boot into brackish water, they usually start to think twice when the murky swamp comes up to their chests.

However, if a student is going to get the most from a field trip, Powell says they need to be up to their elbows — sometimes quite literally — in their environment. He has learned from experience and extensive research over the years that real, impactful learning occurs when students are engaged and outside their comfort zones.

An elbow-deep wade through swamp water is far from comfortable. Most students initially would say it’s scary or gross. Powell calls it transformational.

“When kids later reflect on their experience, those reflections reveal so much about the value of immersing them in natural settings,” Powell said. “These trips break down barriers and break down fear so that they learn as much about the place as they do about themselves. The best educational experiences change the way students think about the world and their place in it.”

Powell, over the course of his entire career, has been preoccupied with what separates the best field trip experiences from those that students forget before their bus arrives back at school. It’s why he and a team of researchers recently received a $1.94 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate what program characteristics matter and how they’re best delivered to maximize learning outcomes for youth participants.

As the George B. Hartzog Jr. Endowed Professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department and director of the university’s Institute for Parks, Powell knows the value of field trips cannot be overstated.

From elementary grades to college courses, these informal learning activities have the potential to facilitate social bonding among classmates and provide applied examples of concepts on which educators must focus. These trips and the experiences they offer can provide a touchstone that educators can refer back to for the rest of a semester or school year.

“When a program is well organized and truly takes advantage of the setting it’s in, it maximizes these positive impacts,” Powell said. “We’ve observed that programs excel when they’re what we call ‘place-based.’ When these programs illustrate the unique attributes of a specific place and facilitate connections that makes an experience so much more effective.”

The research approach

The research will take the form of a large-scale comparative study and will build upon the team’s prior fieldwork in which researchers observed more than 330 environmental education field-trip programs across 23 states and D.C.

Powell and Marc Stern, professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, have partnered on this work since 2004. New additions to the team include Troy Frensley, assistant professor of environment sciences at the University of North Carolina Wilmington; Ryan Gagnon, assistant professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department; and multiple graduate students from each institution.

According to Stern, the logistical challenges inherent to the research are “tremendous.” Four pairs of researchers will visit more than 500 programs based out of numerous organizations to isolate what works in what context and for whom. This work will occur over just a few months, so Stern said planning and preparation will be essential to success.

“The training our research teams will undergo will be extensive to ensure reliability in their observations throughout the fieldwork,” Stern said. “We’re dealing with a lot of variables, but our hope is that the findings will tell a coherent story that will help practitioners improve their programs for diverse audiences.”

The programs in question provide informal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming for students. Frensley said most of the programs that will be studied are linked to national science standards that all students need to learn, so the researchers want to get to the heart of how to best serve diverse learners.

The team will study how a program’s context, design and delivery most powerfully influence learning outcomes and how those characteristics differ across diverse and underserved audiences and contexts.

“Such field trips provide opportunities for diverse audiences to participate in shared learning experiences, but current understanding of what leads to success in these programs is limited,” Frensley said. “This large-scale study will result in the identification of evidence-based practices to inform future program design.”

Awaiting results

Many organizations are already hungry to incorporate the best practices that this research stands to reveal. Powell said he knows an audience for the research exists because of the response the team has received from phase 1’s preliminary findings. The outcome-measure survey developed for this study has been requested for use by more than 250 separate organizations.

These organizations want to either validate what they’re already doing or learn ways to improve their existing approach. Among them is the National Park Service, which hosts thousands of school groups for informal, environmental education experiences across the U.S. every year.

Katie Bliss, training manager for interpretation and education for the National Park Service, said she and the educators with whom she works look forward to the research team’s findings. She hopes the findings will reveal even more best practices for environmental educators so that they can focus on incorporating those practices instead of second-guessing the impact they’re making with students.

“Delivering more facts to students doesn’t lead to more belief or understanding; that’s achieved by interaction and collaboration,” Bliss said. “[National Park Service employees] excel at being skilled storytellers and connecting audiences to authentic themes, but we could stand to improve our ability to become co-creators with students and better enable engagement and participation.”

Leslie Hossfeld is dean of the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, which houses the parks, recreation and tourism management department. Hossfeld said she admires Powell’s dedication to a topic that began with his doctoral dissertation, and she is thrilled to see how the results will shape policy and, more importantly, the experiences of young people during crucial, formative years.

“This has the potential to have a really broad impact on literally thousands of kids a year across the country,” Hossfeld said. “These educational experiences occur during a time in young peoples’ lives when they’re learning to be knowledgeable, responsible stewards of the environment around them, so it is crucial that this programming be as impactful and effective as possible.”

The topic is one Powell says he has enjoyed returning to time and again in his research, simply because he’s always seen the value in “building better experiences.” Prior to graduate school, he managed and guided international adventure trips around the world, including to Antarctica, and traced the path of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands. During every experience, he has been pre-occupied with maximizing impact.

“There are experiences that are fun—and that’s it—and there are those that are fun, educational and ultimately transformational,” Powell said. “Why not have a roadmap to achieve all three?”