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Describing connections between science content and future careers: Implementing Texas curriculum for rural at-risk high school students using purposefully-designed field trips

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  • School of Education Baylor University

Abstract and Figures

The state of Texas has an 'essential knowledge' component in some high school science courses indicating that students be able to describe connections between academic science content and future jobs or training through effective exposure to course content. The participants in this study were from a small rural high school in central Texas. Each was labeled as 'at-risk' and self-identified an inability to describe those types of connections after earning credit in more than one science course with that 'essential knowledge' component. A career-focused field trip to a local vocational/technology training center was designed to address that particular deficit. This study followed a narrative multiple-case case study design. Data included school records, surveys, individual and focus group interviews, and field notes from observations during the field trip. The effectiveness of the field trip was evident as each participant was able to describe connections immediately following the excursion.
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Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
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Describing Connections between Science Content and Future Careers:
Implementing Texas Curriculum for Rural At-Risk High School Students Using
Purposefully-Designed Field Trips
Tommye Hutson
Baylor University
Susan Cooper
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Tony Talbert
Baylor University
The state of Texas has an ‘essential knowledge’ component in some high school science courses indicating that
students be able to describe connections between academic science content and future jobs or training through
effective exposure to course content. The participants in this study were from a small rural high school in central
Texas. Each was labeled as ‘at-risk’ and self-identified an inability to describe those types of connections after
earning credit in more than one science course with that ‘essential knowledge’ component. A career-focused field
trip to a local vocational/technology training center was designed to address that particular deficit. This study
followed a narrative multiple-case case study design. Data included school records, surveys, individual and focus
group interviews, and field notes from observations during the field trip. The effectiveness of the field trip was
evident as each participant was able to describe connections immediately following the excursion.
Keywords: Field trips; At-risk students; Narratives; Science pedagogy; Consequences of high-stakes testing.
Universally students often lament that academic
content bears little meaning to their experience
(Bialeschki, 2007; Hardre, Crowson, Debacker, &
White, 2007). Comments such as, Why do I have to
learn that? or, When will I ever use this? resound in
every classroom and in every discipline whether
adolescents are engaged and participating or bored
and frustrated. A good part of their vocalizing is
likely peer-driven, normal and expected. However,
some students actually realize very little connection
between academic content and their lives or their
futures (Hardre, 2007). For these students, school is
simply a location and series of activities that
consume seven or more hours of the day. In content
areas where abstraction and analysis are necessary,
such as higher mathematics and sciences, this
disconnect can present particular frustrations for
many adolescent students (Scarce, 1997; Kolb, 1984).
The purpose of this study was to determine the
efficacy of a purposefully designed field trip
experienced by 12th grade students from a small, rural
central Texas high school. Because there is also a
chronic lack of research dealing with issues
predominant in rural schools and their students, this
project offered an opportunity to increase the
knowledge base on engagement of rural students with
academic content (Hardre et al., 2007). Having
taught in rural schools for over twenty years, this
research was personally significant as I continue to
advocate for the inclusion of field trips across the
curriculum, but most particularly with my academic
content – high school science.
Field trips represent one pedagogical option
teachers can employ for specific curricular outcomes.
At its very basic level, a field trip provides students
with something other than the mind-numbing day-to-
day routines in the classroom and may provide a
unique experience to construct or reinforce meanings
and connections (Roberts, 2006). Such excursions
help students recognize the need for learning to read
and write, as well as to understand the concepts
introduced in the classroom by exposing students to a
world greater than the one they inhabit from day-to-
day and the career possibilities in that larger context
(Carroll, 2007). In this study, a field trip was
designed to introduce students to several vocational
training programs that build upon science instruction
they should have experienced in their rural high
school classes but that was identified as problematic
or missing.
Texas Science Curriculum
The State Board of Education (SBOE) of Texas
adopts and approves the complete curriculum
presented in grades K-12 for all public schools across
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
38
the state. The content within each subject is referred
to as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or
TEKS. Recent revisions (Texas Education Agency,
2009b) in the state’s curriculum have changed and
increased the requirements for high school
graduation; the revisions were immediately
implemented upon adoption, affecting the 9th grade
students entering that fall.
Each science course approved by the Texas
SBOE is described similarly with regard to the
TEKS. The first section provides a list of
requirements (or recommendations such as grade
level) and/or prerequisites in order to qualify for
enrollment in a class. Second is a general description
of the course objectives. The final (and more
specific) component is the knowledge and skills
content to be developed through successful
completion of the course. This component is divided
into two sections – scientific processes and science
concepts. This is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of each
science course and is further organized, delineated
and labeled with a combination of numbers and
letters (e.g., TEKS 3.E).
Although the state of Texas currently has three
possible graduation plans (minimum, recommended
and distinguished), there was only one graduation
plan offered at the campus selected for this study –
the recommended plan. Chemistry and physics, the
two courses chosen as the focus of the research
questions, are required for both the recommended
plan and the distinguished achievement plan (DAP)
established by the state. The recommended plan
represents a ‘middle of the road’ option as it requires
more credits to graduate than the minimum
graduation plan and was designed to prepare students
for either traditional college or vocational/technical
training and career options after graduation.
Although both the recommended and distinguished
plans require 26 credits, the recommended plan lacks
some of the academic rigor of the DAP. The
distinguished plan requires more foreign language
courses, as well as higher-level math and science
courses. Students from this particular school wishing
to graduate under the DAP plan were required to
enroll at the local community college for dual credit
classes, with the district covering the necessary
tuition and fees. When students on the campus were
unable or unwilling to complete the courses required
on the recommended plan, they were transferred to an
alternative campus where only the minimum diploma
option is available.
The TEKS for chemistry and physics include a
competency, within the scientific process section
(TEKS 3.E), that requires students be able to describe
content from the two disciplines as they relate to
future careers (Texas Education Agency, 2009a).
Because the participants purposefully selected for
this study indicated an inability to realize or describe
the connections as required by the TEKS,
documenting the immediate impact of a career-
focused field trip created the basis for this research.
The research questions that framed this study
were:
1. How do rural students describe connections
between high school science content (chemistry
and physics) and future careers before and after
purposefully designed field trips?
2. When do the connections become evident to
students?
3. What effect or impact does newly discovered
connections have on students’ and their families’
aspirations with regard to future career or
vocational options?
Field Trips and Experiential Education Research
in K-12 Settings
Experiential Education (EE) provided the
theoretical framework for this research and has been
defined as “learning activities that engage the learner
directly in the phenomena being studied” (Wright,
2000, p. 121). Field trips are but one type of
experiential education. While existing literature
demonstrates that effective teaching is greatly
enhanced through experiential learning (Rone, 2008),
various pressures (i.e., NCLB and high-stakes test
scores) have all but eliminated such experiences for
public school students on most campuses nationwide
(Popescu, 2008). Consequently, there is relatively
little current research that addresses the efficacy of
field trips or off-campus excursions in K-12 settings
(Bracey, 2007; Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2006; Baker,
Jensen & Kolb, 2002; Kolb, 1984).
As field trips, excursions and off-campus
opportunities hold the promise of developing and
deepening connections between academic content
and real-world applications, any connection created
or reinforced is most often realized through reflection
on the part of the learner. Unlike the classroom, field
trips are typically socially driven and conversation-
rich settings. They offer students a more complete
picture of the total environment into which they will
enter as adults and afford them a more informed
viewpoint when choosing their life’s work (Rothstein
& Jacobsen, 2006).
As students consider and discuss their individual
and collective experiences, reflection is a natural
consequence that cements and/or reinforces
connections whether they are fledgling or already
firmly intact. While students generally experience a
reduction in conversational interactions in a typical
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
39
adult-led classroom setting, there are indications that
regular one-to-one access to adult mentors
substantially increases the quality of learning in all
children, but especially older children (Thomas,
1994). Curriculum-dependent field trips or
excursions provide opportunities for such access. For
students in rural settings, field trips may represent the
only concrete examples of connections between
academic content and future careers. Further, and
similar to the status of rural research, there is an
apparent lack of recent exploration (Rothstein &
Jacobsen, 2006) with regard to planned
implementation of directed experiences (field trips)
for the purpose of learning, even while this practice is
common and is well-researched as an effective option
in the workplace (Baker et al., 2002; Kolb, 1984).
The push for high-stakes test scores under NCLB
legislation is most often blamed on the reduction in
field trips nationwide and on a corresponding
decrease in research in this area (Bracey, 2007).
The goal of this study was to provide a collection
of descriptive narrative of participants as they:
1. initially failed to identify potential connections
between content and future careers;
2. experienced a field trip/excursion designed to
provide opportunities to realize academic
connections to careers grounded in basic science
concepts; and
3. reflected on the impact of newly acquired
connections with regard to vocational choices
they may have realized as an immediate result of
the experience.
Finally, the end product was a comparative
analysis of the individual narratives using
information provided by the participants in light of
the original research questions.
Designing the Study
There is ample evidence to indicate that rural
students are poorly represented in educational
research. This study sought to investigate field
trips/off-campus excursions as an effective
pedagogical option in rural high school science
classes. For those select students who indicated an
inability to describe connections between academic
content and potential careers, the researcher chose a
qualitative approach, enlisting methods traditional to
case study that included: participant selection through
surveys, comparison of existing student records,
observations and semi-structured interviews in both
individual and focus group settings (Merriam, 1998).
Multiple Narratives
Case study is a research strategy that does not
require the use of any particular data set or evidence
collected (Yin, 1981). Because case study method
seeks understanding, explanation, or description of a
unique event, methods commonly used in case study
were considered most appropriate for this project.
Each participant’s narrative was treated as an
individual unit of analysis. As the study sought to
describe the changes experienced by the participants
and to compare those changes across the cases,
multiple-case narratives represented a better choice
for this study (Yin, 2003).
Multiple factors influencing the learning and
achievement of students are not always easily or
effectively determined through quantitative methods
or instruments. In this study, the first-person
accounts/narratives were organized around the
research questions and presented as described by the
participants (Merriam, 1998). Although not directly
addressed by the research questions herein,
influences affecting the participants involved in this
study certainly included any number or all of the
following: individual personalities of participants,
aspirations of participants, educational history of
participants, school environment, teacher quality,
participants’ experience/educational record in
chemistry and physics, family socioeconomic status,
parents’ educational achievement and aspirations for
participant, parental employment, home language,
citizenship status and ethnicity. Singular narratives,
focused on each of the participants, allowed inclusion
of such information, lending deeper understanding of
these unique participants (Yin, 2003; Merriam, 1998;
Wolcott, 1994).
Data Sources
As narratives of the participants were central to
this project, data were gathered through multiple
means and included qualifying surveys, interviews
(both individual and focus group) as well as
observations. All interviews were audio recorded
and, where recording was not practical, field notes
were used to document interactions between
participants and individuals involved in the field trip
(i.e., various instructors on site and the technology
center recruiter).
Data gathered from formal academic records of
the participants included the following: attendance
records, family income (to determine free- or
reduced-lunch eligibility), family structure (one-
parent, two-parent, or guardianship), parents’
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
40
educational achievement and employment records,
current GPA, science GPA, SAT/ACT scores, TAKS
(Texas high-stakes test) scores, participants’
aspirations and class rank.
Participant Selection
This project started in the fall of the students’
12th grade year. The first criterion for consideration
as a participant was enrollment records on the
selected campus. Students had to be in the 12th grade
and continuously enrolled (on the selected campus)
from the 7th grade through the 11th grade. This
requirement ensured that no student had received
science instruction that was unique or different from
any other student. Because the selected school was
small and offered a single graduation plan, each high
school science course (grades 9-11) was assigned a
particular teacher in any given year (e.g., Mrs. X
taught all of the 9th grade biology classes, Coach Y
taught all of the 10th grade physics classes, and Dr. Z
taught all of the 11th grade chemistry classes). With
this arrangement, each potential participant
experienced consistent exposure to science content
from year to year. There were 43 students enrolled in
the 12th grade at the time this project started. Based
on the requirement of continuous enrollment, 37
students qualified for potential participation and were
given a qualifying survey.
Data Collection
Step one – qualifying survey. The criterion-
based survey used a Likert scale and asked students
to agree or disagree with general statements
concerning attitudes, study habits, homework, after-
school jobs and future plans. There were also
specific statements about science instruction. Those
science-instruction statements simply indicated that
the participants, as students, could describe
connections between academic content and future
jobs or training. Those who responded with agree
were asked to provide an example. If the example
given was appropriate, the student was considered
ineligible to participate. If they responded with
disagree, they were considered potential participants
and passed to the next qualifying activity – an
individual interview. The survey results indicated
that 11 of the eligible 37 students were potential
participants. Of those eleven, six were male. Three
of the eleven were classified as ethnic minorities
(black or Hispanic); additionally, three of the eleven
either had records of previous special education
services or were currently receiving them. In the
period between the survey and initial qualifying
survey, enrollment records were inspected to verify
qualification for participation.
Step two – qualifying interviews. The first
individual interview revealed that two of the eleven
students should not have been included as potential
participants. One male student misunderstood the
statements and could appropriately describe
connections. One female student did not correctly
identify her enrollment as continuous from 7th
through 11th grade; this was discovered when a
review of enrollment records for the group of eleven
was conducted and was further confirmed in her
initial interview. The three students classified as
‘minority’ were disqualified from participation due to
a district policy regarding credits earned toward
graduation. As all three were lacking sufficient
credits to remain with their 12th grade cohort, they
were transferred to the alternative campus for credit
recovery, and placed on the minimum graduation
plan.
The final group of eligible participants was all
white, consisting of four males and two females.
None had visited a single campus or post-graduation
training facility. Once the purpose of the project was
revealed to the remaining participants (a career-
focused field trip to the selected technology center),
the two female students asked to be dropped from the
study as they did not wish to participate in the
research. The chief reason cited was they were both
12th grade cheerleaders and felt their schedules would
be too crowded to allow them to fully participate in
the study. Incidentally, they also reported that, in
their opinions, any technical/vocational training
center was not a good place for girls to go to college.
When asked about that comment, both anticipated a
college experience that culminated in marriage, not
necessarily a degree.
After consent forms were signed by
parents/guardians, a review of individual academic
records revealed that all four participants had been
identified as ‘academically at-risk’ by the school
district at some point during their high school years.
In each case, ‘academically at-risk’ was defined as an
expectation that the student might not graduate with
his (or her) cohort. The cohort for the participants
was defined as the class of students with whom they
enrolled at the start of the 9th grade. It was also
revealed that all four were ranked in the bottom half
of their graduating class, that they all qualified under
the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition
program for either free- or reduced-lunch programs,
and that none of their parents (or step-parents) had
experienced formal training through or possessed
credentials issued by a higher education or
vocational/technical agency. Only one of the
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
41
participants lived with both biological parents; two
lived in blended families with step-fathers in the
home, and the remaining participant’s mother was a
widow with no adult male in the residence; he was an
only child. They were all involved in extra-curricular
sports and various other after-school activities. One
participant was eligible for special education services
throughout his enrollment, grades K-12 (Table 1).
Table 1
Demographics by Participant
Description Allen* Doug* Lane* Stu*
Ethnicity White White White White
Age (at survey) 17 18 17 17
Lunch Reduced Reduced Free Free
GPA 82.35 82.16 76.58 87.74
Science GPA 84.67 79.33 79.0 85.0
Class Rank** 27/39 28/39 39/39 20/39
IEP in records No No Yes No
SAT/ACT Scores None None None 15 ACT
Note: *Names are pseudonyms selected by the participants on the day of the field trip. **Although the class had 43
students enrolled at the time the study began, the final class had only 39 students qualified to actually graduate.
Step three – First focus group. During the first
focus interview session, the four remaining male
participants selected the programs they wished to
visit while conducting an Internet search of the
technology center’s campus website. This search
was conducted as they sat together in the high
school’s computer lab, the only point of Internet
access for the four participants. In their individual
interviews, Allen, Doug and Lane all reported that
they had no computers at home and therefore no
Internet access. Stu was the only participant who
indicated that although there was a computer in his
home, ‘dial-up’ was the only Internet service that was
affordable to his parents but had been disconnected
due to slow service.
While conducting the search, the participants
were asked to consider the following open-ended
questions (pre-excursion) during their Internet search.
1. Tell me about the information you are finding –
what scientific terms do you notice or other
information do you find telling how science is
important to a program that is interesting to you?
2. Tell me if you are still having trouble
understanding how science might be important,
particularly in some program you think is
interesting.
3. Tell me what you expect to discover when you
visit the campus.
Because of the restrictive nature of the high
school campus policy on Internet use, Stu asked: You
mean we can just look around for stuff on the
website? Once given permission, all four were
enthusiastic but unsure how to navigate the
designated website’s interactive components. As
they began to search, it became obvious rather
quickly that the computer network provided a high
speed connection but blocked a good number of
options available for users. In every case, where
videos were embedded for more information,
participants were unable to access those links for
information and further discovery. Although the
videos provided were blocked, all four indicated they
were interested in the diesel mechanics program.
Allen thought computer programming sounded
interesting because the description included the term
‘gaming’: he pondered: Maybe you get to sit around
and play games or create your own? Lane noticed
the media/telecommunications program: Hey, look –
radio and television – do you get to be on the air?
Very quickly, three programs (despite limited access)
were selected to visit.
Step four – campus visit. The site selected for
the field trip was a local vocational/technology
training campus less than ten miles from the
participants’ high school. The facility was the site of
a former military installation closed in the mid-1950s
and reclaimed by the state in order to establish the
vocational/technology training center in the mid-
1960s. Programs offered were organized under six
general areas of study with over 125 professional
certificates available. Student employment rates, as
required by the state in order to maintain funding,
must remain over 90% from year to year.
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
42
All four participants were attentive and engaged
the presenters/instructors in conversation to varying
degrees. Having previously taught each of the
participants, their resulting familiarity with me
reduced the anxiety that was obvious once arriving
on campus - an unknown and potentially threatening
environment. Keenly aware that acting as a
disengaged observer would not provide them with a
fruitful experience, my role was one of guide and
advocate (Yin, 2003), introducing them to each
instructor/presenter and suggesting some questions
that might reveal academic connections to the
programs. Aside from a common interest in each of
the selected programs, all of the participants
indicated during the tour that geographic proximity
and promise of job placement over a lifetime were
also major considerations when researching post-
graduation opportunities. The tour took four and a
half hours, after which the participants dined off-
campus and then met for a second focus
group/debriefing session.
Step five – second focus group. Immediately
following the field trip, the participants were
interviewed in a second focus group setting. This
interview was conducted before returning to the
campus, allowing for immediate feedback and
evidence of connections created as a result of their
corporate experience and conversations. The
following open-ended prompts/questions were
provided to guide the conversations that were
recorded and later transcribed:
1. Tell me what you learned this morning about
science needed in the programs we visited.
2. Was there a point when you realized that science
was important in each of the programs?
3. How much science do you already know that
would be used in a program you saw?
4. Tell me about other jobs you realized or believe
might use science that you know.
During the ensuing 90-minute conversation,
participants considered and addressed the prompts
collectively and revealed several common lines of
thought, often agreeing and further reinforcing their
individual and group debriefing of their experience.
Typical comments included:
Just about everything we saw today had
something to do with math and science…the
lighting and sound stuff uses a lot stuff we
learned in physics…and I didn’t know you had to
know so much stuff about math for those
computer things, I never heard of some of
it…codes and stuff. [Stu]
There was a lot of stuff I never thought about
with cameras in the studio, angles and
stuff…that’s math, right? The sound boards and
light monitors…there was a lot of equipment I
didn’t know it took that much for a radio or TV
show to be done. And the diesel mechanics guy
with the equations…the hydraulics and stuff like
that. [Doug]
Something else I saw out there, it was air-
brushing painting…I didn’t know you could
study stuff like that at college…I mean, I guess
that’s a college class, right? And working on
airplanes? That was really cool. I thought that
was really cool that we could go in the hangar
and look at where they were working on them.
[Lane]
Yeah, I know – I liked seeing like the airplanes
and how they are built, where all the different
controls are. And all of the diesel mechanics
stuff, all of the training involved for the different
engines, because there’s a lot more to it than just
a regular car. [Allen]
Step six – final interview. A second, and final,
individual interview was conducted 7-10 days later,
allowing the participants time to share their
newfound information with parents. The purpose of
the second interview was to assess any changes in
post-graduation plans for college, vocational or
technical training. During this final session, the
following open-ended prompts/questions were
provided to allow students’ reflections on the
experience to be fully explored:
1. Tell me what you understand now about the need
to study science in high school.
2. We took a field trip in the second semester of
your senior year. When would it have been more
helpful to you…to help you understand why
science classes are important in order have a
good job and/or college options after you
graduate? Why do think that would be the best
time to visit off-campus?
3. After you shared this information from the field
trip with your parents, how did your plans and
their support change?
As in both focus group sessions, comments from
the participants were typical of normal conversation,
with comments and answers overlapping and
reiterated, providing deeper understanding of their
experiences as the interviews progressed. The
following comments are combinations of both unique
and commonly shared insights revealed in each
interview.
I didn’t know so much science and math would
be important…I mean I thought computers would
be interesting but it is ridiculous…I don’t get
why you’d have to have so much math to do
codes and stuff to make up games…if you have to
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
43
do that, then I didn’t get nearly enough (referring
to math skills). [Stu]
The freshman or sophomore year. Earlier than
that, you don’t know what you’re doing – it’s just
a trip to get out of class. That’s about when you
start trying to figure out what you’re doing.
[Lane]
Considering that nobody in my family has gone
to college, they’d support me. They want me to
finish. They would support me, no matter what I
do. [Stu]
I think junior high might be a good time to start.
Kids don’t know what they might want to do yet,
but they could start seeing some things instead of
just talking about it or seeing it in books. [Allen]
When I found out they had programs to help you
pay for it and that it was cheaper than any of the
other colleges around, my parents were really
glad. They also have to help you find a job from
now on…that’s good. [Doug]
I really wish I’d paid more attention in physics –
I didn’t know you could figure out so much stuff
about…well, everything basically…I wasted a lot
of time but I guess they can teach me what I need
to know…this time, I’ll pay more attention,
‘cause I’ll be paying for it (laughing). [Allen]
Individual Narrative Analysis
All qualitative research seeks to provide a
descriptive component, but description alone is not a
sufficient reason to conduct research (Merriam,
1998). The data provided in this study are a
collection of narratives, investigating the
effectiveness of experiential education (EE) when
applied to older, adolescent participants (Creswell,
1997). Analysis under the qualitative framework
tends to work from the ground up, dealing with a
specific problem(s) and eventually producing a
hypothesis or solution to the problem under
investigation (Lichtman, 2006). Inductive analysis of
the participants’ perceptions as they moved through
the excursion experience provided evidence of EE
effectiveness. The inductive approach proved
effective when working with the data from each
participant, subjected to analysis as it was collected.
The demographic data, collected prior to the
excursion, is summarized on Table 1. Measures
taken to establish internal validity included
triangulation, member checks, participant
involvement and researcher bias (Merriam, 1998).
External validity is in evidence as transferability to
similar populations would be expected to render
similar results (Yin, 2003).
Analysis across the Narratives
Each narrative was subject to identical and
separate scrutiny in light of the original research
questions and related strands of inquiry that emerged
as a result of conversations (Creswell, 1997). Again,
using the same research questions as focal points, the
individual narratives were collectively analyzed for
responses that were considered generalizable or
similar through an open coding of the transcribed
individual interviews and focus group settings
(Merriam, 1998). Table 2 provides the results of the
coding process in light of:
1. the ability to describe connections between
content before and after the field trip;
2. recognizing a singular event when connections
were realized; and
3. the perceived impact on future plans on the part
of participants and parents/guardians.
Table 2
Summary of Analysis across the Narratives
Question One
Question Two
Question Three
Describing
connections
Recognizing
connections
Impact on future plans
Pre
Post
Case
Field trip
During field trip
Participant
1. Allen
- +
+
+*
2. Doug
- +
+
+
3. Lane
- +
+
+
4. Stu
- +
+
+
Note: - Negative Response; + Positive Response; * Greatest Increase in Response
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
44
Discussion
Research Question 1 – An Inability to Describe
Connections
The first area of research explored the changes in
perception and ability to describe connections
between academic science content and careers as
experienced by the participants immediately
following the field trip. Common characteristics of
the participants included step-parent or widowed-
parent households, economically-stressed households
(allowing enrollment in the National School Lunch
and Child Nutrition Program), active participation in
multiple extra-curricular activities, local church
membership and/or attendance, and membership in
volunteer after-school organizations - all were
members of the volunteer fire department.
Academically, all were ranked in the lower half of
their graduating class, found science content
confusing and/or incomprehensible at times, and
were not interested in science classes beyond those
required for graduation. None had experienced any
field trips that were science or career-specific (e.g.,
museums, zoos, or any available from local venues or
industry) nor had any of the participants visited any
colleges or vocational training facilities at the time of
the initial surveys and first individual interviews.
When interviewed initially about participating in
the project, each participant indicated that he would
probably not enroll for additional science courses
because, as Doug commented, studying science
sometimes makes me anxious or nervous.
Additionally, the common comment, Why would I? I
don’t have to take any more science to graduate, was
an indication of the collective negative association
these students had with science content. However,
when they were asked about participating in a field
trip and visiting a training center, typical responses
were, A field trip? Yes! and It’s a chance to see a
school – haven’t visited one yet. Without the
suggestion that they would have to report anything
specifically observed, this project provided
participants with a single field trip experience,
designed to ensure exposure to some previously
taught science content in multiple vocational settings.
Research Question 2 – Initially Identifying
Connections
The second area of research focused on a
specific instance that participants could identify as
central to realizing connections between academic
science content and future careers. The participants
all reported connections were created in one
particular setting, during the diesel mechanics
program tour. The faculty member conducting the
classroom tour explained the need for basic physics
equations and metric conversions, used in both
chemistry and physics classes, to the participants.
While participants had unanimously reported their
high school physics class as a very negative
experience, they agreed that this instructor
demonstrated a practical, common sense use of
knowledge and skills. Allen’s comment was perhaps
the best: When we walked into that one classroom
with the formulas on the board…it looked just like the
equations from the physics class at school. Further
Allen was impressed with the practical approach
taken by the instructor to solve a problem common to
most science students.
The guy said he had trouble with the difference
between metric tools and our (standard) tools
and he ended up making his own conversion
chart that he put in his wallet so he wouldn’t
keep getting confused. I never thought about
making my own cheat sheet [laughing]. That was
a BIG surprise to me.
This comment drew immediate agreement from
Doug, Lane and Stu.
The next two programs visited were computer
programming and media/telecommunications. While
initially excited about those programs, the
participants as a group were decidedly less
enthusiastic once realizing that both would require
additional college math classes. Misconceptions with
both programs also involved notions such as,
computers would be fun because you could make up
games and stuff, not realizing the critical need for
advanced mathematics. With regard to the computer
program department, Stu’s comment was affirmed by
the other participants – That computer thing or
whatever? There were so many codes, so much
math…stuff like that for (creating) games? It’s
ridiculous. The media/telecommunications program
met with similar (negative) reactions once they
realized not only the heavy reliance on
instrumentation when working with light, sound and
projection, but also the decided lack of ‘face time’ in
front of the camera.
Research Question 3– Changes in Participants’
Perceptions
The final area of research dealt with potential
changes in students’ plans or perceptions with regard
to career options not previously realized or identified.
All of the participants anticipated some type of career
training or college prior to the field trip. As a result
of this singular experience, during their final
individual interviews, each participant agreed that
this should be a ‘connecting piece’ included in
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
45
science and other academic content areas allowing
students to begin understanding the need for said
content in the workplace. Their suggestions for
appropriate grade level inclusion ranged from 7th to
10th grade, with the most common grade level
reported as the sophomore or 10th grade year.
Conclusion
Like many rural schools in central Texas and
across the country, teacher quality is a critical
concern. This study began in the fall of 2009. The
number of science teachers returning to the school
under study was 20% (1 out of 5). All of the high
school teachers were assigned middle school classes
to teach in addition to their high school courses and
all taught what was considered a full load, six classes
per day. In the four years the participants were
enrolled, four different physics teachers and three
different chemistry teachers were hired, stayed for a
year or two and then resigned or were refused
subsequent contracts. With such high turnover, it is
difficult to assume that the science faculty had much
understanding of problems unique to isolated, rural
youth or that they had much impact on the resulting
knowledge and/or skills gained by students. Due to
the fact that the district is located fairly near a large
campus with an education department as well as two
programs offering alternative certification, a
relatively sure supply of teachers is available. The
high school science teachers who came and went
during this period of time were all from one of these
credentialing programs. Of the seven high school
science teachers who taught the cohort of
participants, five were not offered subsequent
contracts, four due to a lack of competence or
misconduct in the classroom and one for criminal
behavior involving students; one left mid-year for
personal reasons and did not return the following
year. One physics teacher left during this period
because he accepted a teaching job closer to aging
parents. An area for future research may be the effect
of science teacher transience on science
connections/career choice of rural school students.
The rural school district that served as the focus
of this study receives minimal federal funding based
on its average daily attendance (ADA), a direct
consequence of small enrollment. With regard to
state funding, this particular district receives the least
funding possible under the current formulas because
it is considered a ‘small school by choice’ – there are
four other somewhat larger rural districts within
twelve miles in which students could enroll and boost
the ADA levels. It is important to note that while
twelve miles may seem like a short distance, local
community identity and membership is determined
by the high school attended and a source of local
pride. Not only do these funding restrictions
negatively affect pay for teachers, another
consequence is a reduced curriculum and few
program options. All enrolled students are expected
to graduate under a single graduation plan. Every
student therefore, regardless of ability or lack thereof,
is expected to complete the requirements under that
plan in order to graduate. Students at the extremes of
abilities are left to fend for themselves. This often
results in special needs students falling behind,
becoming ‘at-risk’ for graduation and, for some,
ultimate placement in an alternative high school
setting where the basic, and possibly more
appropriate, diploma becomes an option.
Field trips/off-campus excursions designed
around basic curriculum represent a crucial option for
students everywhere. Particularly when faced with
high faculty turnover and a lack of adult role models
at home, students’ understandings of the work world
they will enter are fragile. Field trips provide an
opportunity to establish practical experiential
backgrounds against which students can make more
informed decisions regarding their plans after
graduation. Informal education of this type has been
valued and practiced by countless generations. It was
strongly supported by Dewey and others in the early
20th century. By the end of that same century, field
trips were and continue to be a casualty of No Child
Left Behind (NCLB) legislation (Popescu, 2008).
The participants in this study were 12th grade students
in a rural school setting who, except for athletic
and/or extracurricular events, had experienced no off-
campus academically-driven excursions during their
high school years. Although the high school was
located fewer than fifteen miles from three different
vocational/technical and traditional campuses, they
had not visited any of the three (nor any other
facility) during their entire high school enrollment.
Their narratives indicated that a singular, well-
designed, purposeful field trip can have significant
effects on their ability to conceptualize the need for
content presented in the classroom.
Significance and Implications of this Study
This research touched on two specific areas in
which relatively small knowledge base exists. The
first underlying area critical to this study is rural
education. For those interested in or actively
researching rural education, the statistics are well
known and heavily documented. Some of the more
recent statistics available indicate that over 30% of
the nation’s public schools are located in
communities described as rural. The number of
students attending rural schools nationwide remains
Rural Educator 33(1) Fall 2011
46
consistently around or slightly less than 20%
(Gandara, Gutierrez & O’Hara, 2001). Despite their
number and impact on educational outcomes, rural
public schools and their student populations are
statistically underrepresented in current educational
research, generally accounting for less than 6% of the
sampled population in some recent studies (Hardre, et
al., 2007). Rural schools have more diverse
populations, higher rates of poverty, and higher
numbers of single or no parent households than most
urban schools. Since rural property values are
generally lower than urban or suburban properties,
rural schools typically have lower tax revenues with
which to supplement teacher state salaries and
experience greater difficulty attracting and retaining
highly qualified teachers (Hardre, 2007). Isolation is
a typical feature of many rural schools and, with 340
of the poorest 386 counties in the US classified as
rural (Lichter & Johnson 2006), the lack of research
is often indicative of difficulties encountered by
researchers when investigating these schools
(Springer & Gardner, 2010). While this research
project took less than one school year to complete,
the relationships that made it possible and
comfortable for all involved took four years to
establish. This is but one of the difficulties
encountered when qualitative, rich descriptions of
rural problems are desired.
The second area is experiential education in
grades K-12. In concert with traditional educational
theory and practice, the purposefully designed
excursion proved a positive experience for each of
the participants involved. This field trip was
designed with an emphasis on careers requiring some
degree of science content commonly taught in high
school science classes. The positive impact of a
single, purposeful field trip suggests that students can
successfully develop connections between academic
content and future careers when placed in appropriate
contexts. This may be particularly true for students
who are academically challenged or described as at-
risk’ due to low performance on high-stakes tests or
performance in the classroom and, like these
participants, have little or no opportunity for
academic field trips.
Experiential education, in the form of field trips
or off-campus excursions, deserves further
investigation in K-12 settings. With its successful
application at the corporate and higher education
levels, it stands to reason that basic learning styles
remain fairly unchanged. In simpler terms, what
works when you are an adult is quite likely what
worked when you were younger. The overall
positive results of this study, from describing
connections to increased awareness as well as
expanded awareness of other programs and
opportunities, would indicate that field trips should
be further studied as effective pedagogy in rural high
school science classes. If this is indeed an effective
option for ‘at-risk’ rural high school students, field
trips may represent an effective pedagogy for all high
school students across the curriculum because they
may all be ‘at-risk’ to some degree.
At the end of it all, comments like Doug’s Could
we come back tomorrow? I mean this was good
today, I’d like to see some other programs, were the
greatest indicator of the success of this project. Who
knew, Lane chimed in, there was so much out there to
do? And to see? This was really exciting, a little
confusing and kinda scary, but still…this was terrific!
Students deserve the best we can provide when it
comes to educational practice. Field trips represent
one of the best, most proven, pedagogical options
available. Advocate for your students – go out on a
limb, insist on field trips…or, on second thought, go
out on a bus.
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Tommye Hutson is a science teacher and has worked in southern rural classrooms for the past 25 years. Her research
interests include equity in education, teacher education and rural education. She continues to work with rural
teachers in central Texas, concentrating on STEM initiatives and field trips. She would like to sincerely thank both
Dr. Cooper and Dr. Talbert who worked diligently as collaborators and mentors on this project.
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Something Old, Something New Description, Analysis, and Interpretation in Qualitative Inquiry PART ONE: EMPHASIS ON DESCRIPTION Adequate Schools and Inadequate Education The Life History of a Sneaky Kid The Elementary School Principal Notes from a Field Study Confessions of a 'Trained' Observer PART TWO: EMPHASIS ON ANALYSIS A Malay Village That Progress Chose Sungai Lui and the Institute of Cultural Affairs Life's Not Working Cultural Alternatives to Career Alternatives PART THREE: EMPHASIS ON INTERPRETATION The Teacher as an Enemy Afterword, 1989 A Kwakiutl Village and School 25 Years Later The Acquisition of Culture Notes on a Working Paper On Seeking - and Rejecting - Validity in Qualitative Research PART FOUR: TEACHING AND LEARNING QUALITATIVE INQUIRY Teaching Qualitative Inquiry Learning Qualitative Inquiry Some Power of Reasoning, Much Aided
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Experiential learning is a flexible instructional tool, adaptable to suit most courses. However, only a minority of instructors use these types of assignments in their courses. I examine whether short-term experiential learning reduces the drawbacks that may prevent instructors from using this instructional technique. I explore instructor and student perspectives on three types of short-term exercises: observations, participant-observations, and field trips. I find that short-term experiential assignments reduce the logistical concerns involved in experiential exercises and increase the opportunities for analytical reflection, especially for instructors of smaller courses and for non-field trip activities. In large introductory lecture courses, additional steps to structure the reflection process can successfully alleviate many of the problems dealing with lack of analysis. Proper selection of exercises included and careful choices about their use in courses or units with sensitive subject matter will help increase the chance of positive learning outcomes.