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Field Trips and Follow-Up Activities: Fourth Graders in a Public Garden

Number 15 - December 1997

A. Farmer & J. Wott


Field trips offered to school children are a key component of public garden educational programming. Investigations involving living museums have occurred for decades, supporting the use of field trips as educational activities. Programs that have been most successful are those that incorporate three critical elements as defined by researchers of museum education: pre-visit planning, pre-visit preparation, and object-oriented activities (Farmer 1993). Bitgood reported that "a high percentage of teachers also use follow-up activities" (1989). However, very few investigations have addressed the effectiveness of follow-up activities as a part of effective field trips.

Settings and Subjects

Washington Park Arboretum is located in a Seattle City Park and the Arboretum's staff offers structured field trip programs to local schools, contacting 1368 students in 1992 (Robins 1993). Field trip activities for this study took place in a classroom, a plant production area and in the park-like setting of the Arboretum's woody plant collection. Follow-up activities took place in the student classrooms.

Subjects were one hundred eleven public school students in fourth grade classes. All students were enrolled in the same school and had completed similar course work related to plant science.


Students were divided into three groups: the main treatment group (Treatment Group 1)* the Placebo Group and Treatment Group 2 which was a class of students with reading disabilities. Assignment of classes to Treatment Group 1 and to the Placebo group was random. Data for Treatment Group 2 were monitored and analyzed independently and included in the discussion of this paper but not in all of the statistical analysis.

In the Arboretum, immediately prior to the field trip, students received an introduction and agenda delivered by the author and the Arboretum teacher. Students were informed of the research but not of the nature of the investigation. All students completed a pretest designed to measure understanding of subject matter of the field trip

Field Trip Subject Matter and Materials

The lesson plan for the field trip had two components. The "Science Component" addressed seed dispersal mechanisms and the plant life cycle. In propagation and growing areas, a teacher led a discussion addressing the simplified plant life cycle: flower, fruit, seed, vegetation. Students then collected and dispersed seed by eating it, throwing sticky seeds at each other and throwing different types of seed into a stream . Each student selected a type of dispersal mechanism to draw in detail. Discussion addressed all sorts of seed dispersal including ice, airplanes, mud and insects.

The "Arboretum Component" addressed the function and mission of the Washington Park Arboretum. Students 'hunted' for then deciphered plant accession tags. Students examined plants ready to be sold (and dispersed through commerce) as well as holding beds of plants being introduced to the Arboretum. Discussion also focused on the size and type of Arboretum plant collections.

Follow-up Activities

Follow up activities were the experimental treatments for this investigation. Each experimental treatment lasted for forty-five minutes and had the same format and same sorts of activities. These included drawing, role playing, visualization and handling plant parts . The experimental treatment:

  1. For Treatment Groups 1 and 2 the experimental treatment was designed to reinforce the components and learning objectives of the field trip. The lesson plan, concepts and components of the field trip were repeated and discussed in the classroom. Activities were different though designed to emphasize the same concepts as the field trip. Treatment Group 2 also received this activity.
  2. For the Placebo Group the experimental treatment addressed tools a plant scientist may use for research and did not address the concepts or subject matter of the field trip.

Testing Instrument

Instrumentation consisted of a written short-answer test similar to the students' classroom tests. Of the eleven questions, eight questions addressed the Science Component for a possible subtotal of 81 points. Three questions addressed the Arboretum Component for a possible score of 18 points.

Pretest scores were charted as a histogram which showed a relatively normal population. The placebo group scored higher than the treatment group (means of 44.2 and 36.4, respecfively), but the difference was not significant. All students then parficipated in a standardized field trip presented by the author or one trained Arboretum teacher.

Approximately two weeks after the field trip, the author went to the classrooms of the students in the placebo and treatment groups to present follow-up activifies. Immediately after the follow-up activity all students completed a posttest designed to measure understanding of concepts and subject matter presented during the field trip. The pretest and the posttest were identical.

T-tests were conducted between the posttest scores of Treatment Group 1 and the posttest scores of the Placebo Croup. T-tests also were conducted between the pretest score and the posttest scores by each group. The pretest-posttest control group design was used (Campbell and Stanley 1963).

Students had fithteen minutes to complete the test The pretest and the posttest were the same insvrument. Content validity was established by two judges fiom the Xculty of the UniversHy of Washington School of Education. During a wial run of the invesdgation, a teacher fiom the Mudy school (but not Som the study group) reviewed and commented on the test quesfions and brmaL Local school teachers signed up voluntarHy to have their students participate in the Washington Park Arboretum Field Trip programK From one school, teachers signed up over two hundred burth grade students . The superintendent, teachers and students from this school were asked to participate in this study.

Five classes were assigned randomly to experimental groups called
Placebo or Treatment groups.

Results and Discussion

The results indicate a small difference between the posttest scores of Treatment Group 1 and the Placebo Group with much of the difference accounted for by the science component of the test. T-tests showed significant increases in total scores. For the two Treatment groups, changes were highly significant (P<.00) and for the Placebo Group they were slightly less significant. For short-term learning, the relevant treatment follow-up activity was more effective as an educational tool than the unrelated placebo.

This supports the use of follow-up activities by educators and museum staff as well as suggestions by other researchers that follow-up activities do reinforce and solidify the concepts discussed on field trips. However, the posttest was given immediately after the follow-up activities and therefore compared short-term memory and learning for the Treatment Group with longer-term memory and learning for the Placebo Group. A posttest conducted at least a week after the follow-up activity would have given more robust conclusions but was not possible.

The increase in test scores for the Placebo Group may be accounted for by several factors, all of which assume the placebo activity had no effect on the posttest score because it did not address the test content. First, learning was a purpose of the field trip and is consistent with the increase in scores demonstrated by the Placebo Group. The implication is important, especially for the Arboretum, as it suggests that the field trip program was a successful and complete educational activity.

Second, having taken the pretest undoubtedly focused students' attention during the field trip. Third, it is possible that students engaged in activities or discussion which contributed to uncontrolled learning during the period between the field trip and the follow-up activity.

Implications are important for school and museum educators who are required to justify and integrate the field trip as an effective educational tool. InÄclass, teacher-led follow-up activities are commonly used. Follow-up activities may be more effective if led by Museum Teachers. Research should address the effects of this variation. Until then, the public garden staff can help the class teacher by providing field trip lesson plans and suggested follow-up activities.