Tag Archives: San Diego Natural History Museum

Architecture: The Structure of Learning

We have a beautiful urban park here in San Diego.  Open space, trees, a lily pond, fountains, trails, museums and restaurants…including some ornate and historic architecture that dates back to the Panama-California exhibition in 1915.  In these storied surroundings, I’ve been spending time with a group of formal and informal educators investigating ways to improve school field trips through a project we call Intersections.  (I’ve written before about it here and here.)

As I spent the day at the San Diego Natural History Museum today, observing a group of high school students on a field trip, I found myself thinking about architecture.


As the educator-researchers in our group discussed what we observed watching students during their field trip today, our conversation moved to the carefully planned structures that support students’ independence and dispositions toward learning.  Field trips have traditionally depended on adult-centered structures that keep students “on-task,” ensuring that the trip has documented educational value in the form of completed packets of answered questions rather than trusting students to be interested in what they find in front of them.

Over lunch, our Intersections leadership team chatted with an external evaluator–a part of our larger National Science Foundation grant– about our observations and tentative conclusions. And we found ourselves thinking about and talking about all the learning that happens that we are not able to document.  When we take students outside the classroom, what are we hoping for?  What can they learn that the classroom environment doesn’t offer?  And why then, do we keep trying to make field trips more like school?

As I look at this photo of a young woman using her cell phone to photograph an owl, I wonder how we encourage students to use tools and processes they use outside of school to support their own learning.  How will this student use this photograph?  What was she aiming for as she composed the image?  How can students’ digital lives interact in positive ways with their school lives?


And as my colleague described her understanding of the development of social capacity, a concept important in her binational work, my understanding of the learning that happens on field trips continued to evolve.  A field trip is not a classroom lesson, it is a social event, a shared learning experience outside the school environment.  And while students certainly learn some content, they are also developing social capacity–as representatives of their school and class in a public arena.  They are navigating unfamiliar spaces, coming in contact with people they don’t usually see, interacting with adults–docents, volunteers, vendors, scientists, researchers–and exploring materials not present in their classrooms and schools.


And in the best of situations they are figuring out how to interact with the space, people, and information in meaningful ways.  I loved this informal game I observed today…a chaperone and his group spontaneously started counting the animals they spied in this coastal sage environment.  Someone saw 9…and another saw 12, someone else saw 15.  They started pointing them out to each other, looking closely, naming what they saw.


And another researcher watched a pair of students challenge each other on the native/nonnative quiz in the patio area.  The goal was to win…and the game was calling on prior knowledge and combining it with what they were observing in the exhibit.  And they were having fun…being social, laughing, enjoying themselves…and learning.

So what is the underlying architecture of a successful field trip…that structure that enables students to engage in learning on their own terms?  That takes advantage of the place and the richness of expertise and artifacts that aren’t present in the classroom?  And that honors the beauty and elegance of learning…not for a grade or a test, but because we are inspired and motivated to learn because we are learners–driven to make sense of our world, on our own terms.





Having New Eyes

On Saturday I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the new exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the NAT) that will be called Coast to Cactus.  And while it is still months away from being open to the public, I was inspired by the ideas and messages I found there. This exhibit focuses on the ecosystems of San Diego county…their diversity, beauty, resilience…all that is often unseen and unappreciated.

This quote, scratched out in marker on a piece of paper and taped to a wall, spoke to me and has continued to resonate.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.      Marcel Proust

I’ve come to appreciate museum exhibits in new ways these days as I’ve learned about their conception and design.  Instead of consuming the content they offer, I see them as invitation to see my world anew.  The Coast to Cactus exhibit offered me views that I see everyday, and yet invited me to resee them…something I have also been doing through my camera lens.  In the emerging exhibit I saw native plants and animals…meticulously crafted (apparently by a company in Minnesota that hadn’t see many of the plants they were building) to look realistic. And in addition to seeing…there will be opportunities to smell, hear, and feel the environment as well.

On Sunday, we headed off to the Torrey Pines State Reserve to walk and enjoy the natural beauty of this magnificent place.  A few miles from home, this place is home to many native plants and animals, including the rare Torrey Pine tree.  And it is ruggedly natural, with sandstone cliffs and breathtaking views of the ocean, lagoon, canyons…and even the freeway!

This is my community…our school grounds host Torrey Pine trees, the ocean is the ever-present western border, hawks and other raptors cruise the skies, and native species like black sage and lemonade berry are frequently viewed as weeds.  I see them everyday…and yet often don’t see them at all.  Even the fires are a part of this ecosystem…and the exhibit features fire within it.  So many of our native plants depend on fire for regeneration, and rather than being destroyed by fire are reborn through fire.

As I hiked through Torrey Pines, I found myself looking for new ways to see this beautiful natural landscape.  Here’s a peek at some of what I saw.

beach cliffs torrey pines

Wind eroded cliffs, rich with iron oxide which gives it the reddish cast

sun through the Torreys

Sun through the Torrey Pines

succulent tree

The ocean through the yucca

prickly pear in bloom

Prickly pear cactus in bloom

prickly pear with bee

Bees pollinating cactus blossoms

ceanothus flower

Is this buckwheat or ceanothus (up close through my macro lens)?  It’s everywhere in the lagoon and at Torrey Pines Reserve.

As you might imagine, I took many more photos…and I’m sure you will catch a glimpse of a few more over the next days and weeks.  I love spending time out in my community, learning to see my everyday landscapes in new ways.  And in addition to what I see through my lens, when I am out taking photos I am also smelling, hearing, and feeling what these places have to offer.  I hope that the Coast to Cactus exhibit that will open in 2015 at the NAT will have a similar impact on others who visit it.  You don’t have to go to Torrey Pines to find this beauty…it is all over San Diego, you just need to look with new eyes.

Working from the Why

Everyone loves a field trip…right?  Or maybe not…  As a teacher I like the way that field trips give my students a shared experience and helps to make abstract science or social studies concepts more concrete.  I also like to give my students access to experts in the field and help them imagine professions where this content learning is applied.  But…to get these outcomes, teachers have to plan carefully and connect classroom learning to the resources of the field trip destination.

The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), along with the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (Fleet) are partnering in a National Writing Project (NWP) and Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) initiative investigating the intersections of science (or STEM) and literacy (with an emphasis on writing).  Yesterday we launched our work  with ten formal educators (who work in public schools) and ten informal educators (who work in the museums mentioned above), with a particular focus on field trips.


The facilitation team (of which I am a part) decided to launch our work by focusing on the why of the work.  Why is it important to re-examine field trips and consider ways to improve the experience for students and to create supportive structures for teachers and other adults who accompany young people to museums and other field trip sites?

Inspired by a TED Talk by Simon Sinek entitled How Great Leaders Inspire Actionwe spent our first (of 5) sessions focused not on the what or how of our project.  We sent teams of educators out into the museums to observe and experience an exhibit through a set of prompts that invited them to look and try through a variety of different lenses, and write about their experiences.  They critiqued the exhibit–not to find fault with it–but as a way to consider what structures might support learners’ interest, inquiry, and pique curiosity.


Our short, but intense day left us with a desire to take action…to figure out how to make field trips amazing learning experiences, with students at the center.  One comment from the end of the day reflections is still bouncing in my head,

…the “why”has the power to transform educational practices.  From field trips to worksheets to projects, I wonder how many educators push past the “what.”

Our goal with this project is to do just that–to push past the what and consider the why. The why is where the action sits…and we want to take action toward improving field trip experiences for students by supporting the adults who facilitate them: teachers, museums educators, chaperones, and parents.

I can’t wait to see where this project takes us…  If only I had a window into the future to get a hint at just what the possibilities might be!


What do you love about field trips?  What does your ideal experience look like, feel like, leave you thinking about?

Writing, Science, and Making

On my way to UCSD yesterday morning I listened to this story on our local public radio station about a zombie horror video game inspired by a nature documentary, with commentary from a local entomologist from the San Diego Natural History Museum, Michael Wall.  I’m not much of a video game player, but I love the idea that a nature documentary and the very real behavior of parasites inspired the story of this game.  I started to think about the ways that science and writing are natural partners and the roles that curiosity and creativity play in both.

And then I started to think about the ways that curiosity and creativity often get squished in schools in the name of supporting our learners.  We’ve been reading, writing, and debating formulaic writing in the SDAWP Invitational Summer Institute this week and asking ourselves what is gained and what is lost when writers, especially young writers, are encouraged or even forced to fit their thinking and ideas into five paragraphs (or three or…) predetermined and highly structured by a formula?

I’ve heard people say that “structures” (provided by formulaic writing) free young writers from the frustration of figuring out effective organization for their ideas and their writing.  But I’m guessing that neither the writer of the nature documentary nor the video game maker used a formula to craft the stories behind their movie and game.  I wonder if they even thought they were writing (as in school writing) as they crafted the narrative structures that hold their work…or were they simply making and/or playing as they explored the ideas in their heads?  I’m also wondering if they worked with collaborators–and how that shaped their stories and their productions.  (It sounds like both making and playing to me…and fun!)

My brain is already on fast forward to the new school year as I think about how my students might be inspired to write video games and documentaries and radio podcasts like the one above and who knows what else!  I know I won’t be providing any fill-in-the-blank formulas to structure their compositions.  Instead, I will help them locate mentor texts (texts in the broadest sense of the word) to play with, examine, and study to figure out how they will construct their own.  And I will create and compose along with them.

And for those of you who think your ideas are not clever or original or good enough, take a look at this video (thanks Kristina Campea for sharing on google+ at the #clmooc).

So what inspires your writing and creating?  What structures do you depend on to move from ideas to composition?

On Noticing

One of the reasons I love taking pictures is that it helps me notice.  Instead of going full-speed-ahead about my life–checking this thing or the other off my ever growing to-do list and worrying about whether I will ever get caught up–noticing helps me slow down, appreciate interesting things around me, and then I find myself asking questions.  When I watched this caterpillar wiggle its way into a chrysalis, my curiosity about everything related to monarch butterflies became insatiable.  (This incredible process happened in the planter box right outside my classroom.  I was also experimenting with using a macro lens on my phone–as seen in the top two photos–helping me to really look closely and focus carefully.  More on focus to come!)

photo-4 photo-3 photo-5 photo-6

As a result of what I had noticed and photographed, I wanted to know more.  I researched on the web, found and read non-fiction books, watched some incredible videos, talked to people around me, and enjoyed reading some fiction as well (Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver came out at the just the right time for me!).  I think that everyone around me also learned–whether they were interested or not–about monarchs and their life cycle!  But most importantly, this event heightened my noticing behavior.  Everywhere I went, indoors and out of doors, I was noticing: paying attention to patterns, colors, numbers, textures…subtleties in the world around me.

This article a friend of mine who works at the San Diego Natural History Museum referred me to reminded me of the importance of noticing–not just for me, but also for my students.  My favorite question to my students is always, “What do you notice?”  I ask that about text, about songs, about pictures, about math and science and social studies…about just about everything!

And even though we do a lot of noticing, I wonder if there is enough time in schools for noticing, for curiosity, for inquiring into things that are interesting.  As I photograph and write my way through the summer, I will also be thinking about that question–and the actions that I will take to make sure my students have ample opportunity to notice as part of their learning experience.  What do you do to help yourself (and the young people around you) notice?