A Field Guide to Field Trips
Photo courtesy of Caverns of Sonora
Classroom in a Cave
Caverns of Sonora
The landscape around Sonora is classic Texas ranchland. But below ground waits an extraordinary experience for Texas students. Bill Stephenson, the founder of the National Speleological Society, says the Caverns of Sonora are “the most indescribably beautiful cave in the world. Its beauty cannot be exaggerated, not even by a Texan.”
The cave is a constant 71 degrees and plunges to depths of 150 feet beneath the earth. Students explore passages and formations with intriguing names such as the Valley of Ice, the Devil’s Pit, and the Crystal Palace. “One of the best features about our educational tours is the underground classroom,” says Ed Mayfield, marketing director. “Students learn about cave formation, and it’s all done inside our auditorium room of the cave.” In addition to lessons in geology, your students can also learn about cave biology and paleontology.
Tours can be customized depending on the size and age of your group and include activities such as digging for fossils or panning for gemstones. The staff’s best advice for teachers is to collaborate with them ahead of time. “It’s good for teachers to have a thorough understanding of how our cave operates to protect the cave,” says Mayfield. Some areas of the cave, such as the Crystal Palace, can only be explored with 12 students at a time. “Allowing time to get all the kids into the cave is important.”
Plan your spelunking adventure by calling (325) 387-3105 or visiting cavernsofsonora.com/tours.
Photo courtesy of Science Mill
Just three years ago, the Science Mill was an iconic, but dilapidated, 1880s grist mill. But Johnson City’s landmark silos now have new life. Bonnie Baskin, a former microbiologist, university professor, and entrepreneur, saw the mill and envisioned it as a high-tech, interactive, immersive science museum. In an unusual twist, the Science Mill was created with a focus on middle school students. “Middle school is when kids start to lose interest in science,” says Baskin. “We wanted to create a place where they could get excited about science again.” The Science Mill features technological exhibits, which include game-based challenges, coding, and engineering.
While the exhibits invite students to discover careers in science, the Science Mill’s clear mission is to help teachers. “There’s nothing more important than the teachers,” says Baskin. “The thing that makes it worthwhile for me is when we have a teacher who says they watched their students interact with the exhibits and saw a new spark of curiosity.” With this in mind, all materials are TEKS aligned, and there is support for teachers before, during, and after the scheduled field trip.
Baskin’s advice for educators who visit the Science Mill is to plan to spend as much time as possible on-site. “It breaks our hearts when kids only have two hours,” says Baskin. “There’s so much to do!”
Photo courtesy of Heritage Farmstead
Before the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex became the vast, concrete jungle it is today, it was a sweeping prairie covered in tallgrass, known as the Blackland Prairie region. Historic landmarks like Plano’s Heritage Farmstead Museum offer Texans a glimpse into prairie life during the 18th and 19th centuries and give your students the chance to be a pioneer for a day. T
otaling 4.5 acres, the Heritage Farmstead Museum is the premier living museum of agricultural history in North Texas. The farmstead offers school tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and each tour is 90 minutes long. According to Lindsay Bradshaw, director of education at the museum, most groups range from pre-K to fourth grade.
“One of my favorite things about field trips here are the hands-on activities,” Bradshaw says. “Students get to learn through grinding corn and feeding chickens, plowing and planting the old-fashioned way, milking our pretend cow, and having a lesson in a replica schoolhouse. They learn through explanation but also through immersion.”
Start planning your pioneer day by heading to the museum’s website and checking out all they have to offer your little farmers in the making.
Photo courtesy of Witte Museum
Located in the heart of San Antonio, the Witte Museum provides students the opportunity to explore all that is “Texas born, bred, and excavated.” The museum completed a two-year transformation in March 2017 by adding 170,000 square feet of renovated and expanded exhibits and program areas, headlined by Dinosaurs, People of the Pecos, and Texas Wild exhibits. From learning about the dinosaurs who roamed Texas millions of years ago, to the people of the Lower Pecos who inhabited Texas thousands of years ago, up to the early settlers from hundreds of years ago, a field trip to the new Witte complements any Texas history curriculum.
“All of our field trips are dynamic with hands-on components,” says Christina Cate, director of play at the museum. Many of the field trips take place in a “lab” that accompanies the new exhibits, so field trips aren’t just a museum educator standing and talking at schoolchildren.
Educators are encouraged to attend free Evenings for Educators sessions, which take place twice a year before the spring and fall semesters. “Teachers are very much part of what we do here,” says Amy Mitchell, director of education. Educators can preview the exhibits, hear from curators, and explore how to best incorporate the museum’s learnings into their classroom curriculum—and even earn continuing professional education credit!
Photo Courtesy of El Paso Symphony Orchestra
El Paso Symphony Orchestra
Allow your students to take different kinds of notes by experiencing the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. Started in the 1930s, the orchestra “is the oldest performing arts organization in El Paso and the longest continuously running symphony orchestra in the state of Texas,” according to its website.
With its main mission being to engage, educate, and entertain the vibrant and multicultural community of the El Paso region, the symphony orchestra offers three programs specifically geared toward educating schoolchildren in music. One such program, the Young People’s Concerts, has been in existence for 76 years and specifically targets fifth graders in the area. Now connected with the Carnegie Hall Link Up program, the Young People’s Concerts allow students to participate in the show through recorders and singing. Two other programs, Kids for Klassics and Angel Ticket, provide free tickets to classical music concerts for local school districts, including a pre-concert talk for participating classrooms. Additionally, various chamber ensembles perform concerts in schools and partner with schools to use music as an instrument (in more ways than one!) to enhance students’ understanding of classroom subjects.
Bring the sound of music to your class by calling (915) 532-3776 to reserve a spot at the next concert. See epso.org for more details.
Photo courtesy of the McDonald Observatory
The McDonald Observatory
The dark night skies in Fort Davis offer some of the best stargazing in Texas. And perched atop Mount Locke, under the McDonald Observatory’s white and silver domes, some of the best astronomers in the world are waiting to share their enthusiasm with your students.
The visitor’s center features a full classroom, theater, and Decoding Starlight exhibit hall. Programs can include daytime tours of the telescopes, solar viewing, and nighttime star parties. Every learning experience supports TEKS and STAAR goals, and is customized to K–12 audiences.
For teachers who are nowhere near the remote west Texas observatory, there’s good news. The observatory offers interactive, virtual field trips for grades three through 12. Whether you’re visiting in person or online, the McDonald Observatory offers a wide array of resources for teachers.
Learn more at mcdonaldobservatory.org, or call (432) 426-3673 to start planning your trip to the stars.
Field Trip Tips
Looking for a low-stress guide to planning your field trip? Read ATPE member Celena Miller’s expert tips on the ATPE Blog.