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Transforming Local Spaces With Relevant Perspectives

Science Scope—March/April 2021 (Volume 44, Issue 4)

By Martha Inouye, Clare Gunshenan, Ana Houseal, Jennifer Applequist, and Lorna Bath

Transforming Local Spaces With Relevant Perspectives

CONTENT AREA Focus of mini—field trip


BIG IDEA/UNIT Learning from local spaces, developing investigative questions


TIME REQUIRED One class period

COST No cost

SAFETY Follow all NSTA safety guidelines; see Figure 1.

On a sunny day in late February, a group of teachers sat around a table sharing their experiences with a new instructional approach that engaged students in a variety of concepts, big ideas, and practices while deepening their understanding of a common space—their place, whether it was their school grounds or their homes. Using what they call mini–field trips, the teachers had students consider a perspective, observe their surroundings, and question what they were seeing. This became the impetus for deepening their scientific knowledge and skills, while gaining an awareness of their local environment. The teachers reflected on the approach’s flexibility and versatility as they shared how many different outcomes they could guide their students toward after observing the same space but from different perspectives. The teachers’ key learning: By asking students to embody various perspectives in a familiar place, local spaces transform into novel grounds for rich learning.

Mini–field trips that promote science learning

If we consider field trips to be enriching excursions outside of students’ typical school experiences (Behrendt and Franklin 2014), a simple and economical mindset shift emerges: Visit familiar spaces, but facilitate atypical experiences. Providing students with purpose or perspective when visiting a familiar place opens opportunities for novelty, exploration, and relevant science learning, just as an off-site destination might. It also provides an easily accessible space, whether students are in the classroom or learning remotely, for them to make sense of problems and phenomena in their local area.

Teachers explored the idea of mini-field trips around school grounds as an approach to enrich and personalize student learning. This replicable structure starts with a simple prompt in which students consider a problem from a specific perspective (i.e., the beginnings of a phenomenon). Then they explore their surroundings from this perspective, make observations, and generate questions related to what they want to pursue. The student perspectives foster the authenticity of scientists observing, questioning, and finding solutions to presented problems from multiple angles. The questions that students ask are connected to subsequent investigations and help drive science learning. As such, the mini–field trip structure establishes an accessible context for teachers in which to relate student questions to relevant scientific concepts.

The advantages of a minifield trip on familiar grounds, like school or home, include direct applicability for students, low investment in time and financial resources, and the potential to deepen student learning with future visits. In this article, we present a structure to leverage minifield trips as a strategy to initiate units, build student curiosity, and drive science learning. We share a general structure we have used in teacher professional development and one example of a teacher using this idea with their students in the classroom setting. We believe that this structure is also amenable to a virtual setting where students might explore other familiar grounds, like their home surroundings, to begin the learning process.

What does a mini–field trip look like?

Imagine that it is February in a place where snow falls regularly, and warm days and cool nights result in freeze–thaw cycles throughout the winter. A large storm passed through several days ago, and wind and warm weather created snowdrifts and icy spots. A teacher uses this scenario to prompt small groups of students: Consider the impacts of this most recent storm on the perspective you and your group members will embody (e.g., a local animal, a groundskeeper, or a sweaty and tired student (see Supplemental Materials for link to a table with three perspectives used in workshops). Informed by a brief description of the problem and their perspective, the groups disperse to explore the school grounds and consider how they might mitigate the impacts of the storm for their group. Prior to introducing this activity, the teacher walked the school grounds to identify potential observations that could direct the lesson toward her goals (e.g., snow covering vegetation an animal might eat in certain areas but not others; ice and shade on the north side but not the south side of the building) as well as any potential risks of which to advise students. She set boundaries and rules for the exploration outside and had students put on warm clothing (see Figure 1 for suggested safety precautions).

Figure 1
Figure 1 Safety considerations for mini–field trips.

Safety considerations for mini–field trips.

Equipped with writing utensils, clipboards, and paper, students spend 10 minutes observing and writing down what they are seeing (you could also have students take pictures of what they are seeing using phones, iPads, or other devices). The teacher moves among the groups, listening to their discussions and prompting them to observe other sections of the grounds, compare observations, and consider their perspective. Next, back in the classroom, students write on butcher paper using their perspective-specific observations to generate questions they could investigate. After groups share with the entire class, students are tasked with grouping and refining all of the class’s questions into a few central themes. From this bank of student questions, the teacher draws on the ones that relate to the trajectory of the unit they have planned. As the unit progresses, this honors students’ ideas by matching student-generated questions with each subsequent investigation. This strategy embeds opportunities for differentiation by allowing space for all students’ ideas, while also using group discussion to collectively deepen students’ abilities to generate scientific questions that can be further investigated.

How to create these opportunities for your students

To plan this minifield trip progression, teachers considered several key elements to maximize learning.

Selecting the problem, selecting the perspective, and embedding CCCs

When selecting the problem, consider the local space and the science concepts you want students to understand (disciplinary core ideas [DCIs]), and identify a crosscutting concept (CCC) that will provide a lens for those concepts. Embedded in this activity are opportunities for students to engage in the science and engineering practices (SEPs) of asking questions and defining problems and an entry point into planning and carrying out investigations. If you have students model what they think is happening in their observations, you might also support students in components of developing and using models. In our case, winter’s impact on life is a prominent and relevant context for both students and teachers. We wanted to present an entry point for several physical and Earth science concepts related to PS1.Matter and Its Interactions, PS3.Energy, PS4.Waves, and ESS2.Earth Systems. The CCC of cause and effect was appropriate for supporting these science concepts and made sense when thinking about winter’s impact—cause-and-effect relationships became the guiding lens in the prompts we gave students (e.g., what might be causing different places on the playground to be warmer or cooler?).

  • In selecting perspectives for students, we again considered the standards and identified roles that would shift attention toward observations and questions targeting our intended dimensions. See the table in Supplemental Materials for examples that show how we embedded cause and effect into prompts and perspectives around a common context of winter’s impact. For example, the maintenance perspective relates to winter in a place where snow, consistently strong winds, and solar radiation play a large role in ground conditions and where snow and ice reside. By considering cause-and-effect relationships between these variables, students observe these interactions and create recommendations for safely plowing and storing snow on the school grounds. These recommendations need to be informed by science concepts related to weather and climate (ESS2.D) and engineering (ETS1.A; ETS1.B).
  • If instead, we wanted students to focus on a biotic component, we might introduce the perspective of a wild rabbit living in town. It would support similar DCIs to those of the maintenance person (ESS2.C; ETS1.A), while also providing an opportunity to consider ecosystem interactions (LS2.A; LS2.C; LS4.D). Cause and effect could then guide considerations of where the rabbit would eat and sleep in the winter.

Notice the perspectives in our example generated questions that connected to physical and Earth science topics we were targeting, as well as other science concepts. Herein lies the versatility of the mini–field trip. For example, the maintenance person perspective resulted in questions that connected to engineering and design solutions, whereas the wildlife perspective allowed for an entry point into exploring ecosystem dynamics. Depending on your standards, you can select roles that promote connections to intended concepts and provide points of coherence to other learning sequences. Likewise, prompts should be adjusted on the basis of your target CCC. Instead of prompting students to consider what might be causing something they observe, you might ask them to consider how energy is influencing their observations. These perspectives and prompts provide a lens for students to observe a phenomenon or problem and generate questions that require them to develop and use science ideas to answer those questions.

Prompting students during a mini–field trip

During the observation portion of the mini–field trip, we prompted students to focus on their perspective through the lens of the CCC in the prompt. This allowed us to guide students to observe deeply and to make connections to ideas they would explore later in the instructional sequence. All the while, it provided us opportunities to formatively assess students. We encouraged all observations at this stage of the process because we wanted students to build curiosity and observe the world critically.

  • In the wildlife example, we guided some groups by asking if they had observed any locations where a rabbit might sleep and what might cause a rabbit to want to sleep there. With other groups, we asked students to share an observation and prompted them to consider how that might relate to the rabbit’s behavior. We also directed them to observe areas of the playground they may have overlooked. By asking groups similar and different questions, we increased the ideas students came up with and could share as a collective. We provided these prompts during observation to help groups observe more closely, after letting them make some initial observations, so they had more context for these prompts.
  • After observing, students collaboratively generated questions about their observations in small groups. If students were struggling, we supported them in two primary ways: by asking them to juxtapose two observations to generate a testable question or by reading one of their observations aloud and prompting them to consider why they thought that observation was applicable from their perspective. For example, if a group observed ice and snow on the ground in one place but dry ground in another, you could repeat those observations to them and ask what question they might pose to make sense of what they noticed (e.g., “I notice you wrote down that the shady side of the building has ice on the ground. You also wrote that there is dry pavement by the basketball hoop. What question can you come up with that might help us figure out why there is that difference?”)

Coherence and connecting mini–field trips to other instruction

We created coherence between the minifield trip and the classroom by linking subsequent classroom investigations to the student-generated questions. See the table in Supplemental Materials for some ideas for subsequent investigations. We examined all questions and ordered a sequence that built and led students to the learning outcomes. After students generated observations and questions, a class discussion allowed us to guide learning by highlighting observations and questions that led to specific science concepts. When students revisit the field trip space later in the unit, they can apply their new understanding to make further sense of, and connect to, their observations and questions. In this way, a teacher can honor student curiosity, while guiding students in the direction of intended learning outcomes in coherent ways. See Figure 2 for an example of a teacher who used perspectives to drive a unit about changes in the landscape and organism structure and function (see also CER rubric related to Figure 2 in Supplemental Materials).

Figure 2

From the design: A teacher in action

In our teaching team, we prioritize connecting students to their local places as much as possible. Our final unit of the year incorporated three standards: PS4-1, ESS1-1, and ESS2-1. To connect these ideas to our local place, we decided to use a local mountain. Seen from the schoolyard, the mountain is less than a mile away and has visible evidence of fossils, an uplift event, weathering and erosion, vegetation differences, and some of the largest shale oil and trona beds in the region. We were hoping that students would make connections to weathering and erosion by water, snow, and vegetation; to depositional geology and what rock formations tell us about the landscape’s history; and to evidence of waves of frozen water. We realized that investigating these science ideas in the context of the mountain’s appearance lent itself to having students adopt different perspectives, so we designed the rest of our unit around this idea.

The thing that appealed to us about this approach was that we could have students engage with two science and engineering practices—planning and carrying out investigations and analyzing and interpreting data—but each perspective group could approach them from a different point of view (we connected to our ELA standard on points of view). All groups used the same CCCs (patterns and cause and effect: mechanism and explanation) to connect the DCIs and SEPs and as a lens for our mountain phenomenon.

First, we identified the perspectives that would help our students ask questions and explore the ideas we were targeting. We settled on a raindrop (hydrology from the water’s perspective), a mule deer (community ecology from an animal’s perspective), a juniper tree (biogeology from the plant’s perspective), a geologist (deposition stories from a scientist’s perspective), and a recreationalist (human impacts from a user’s perspective). The incorporation of the mule deer and juniper tree allowed students to revisit what they learned about animal structure and function in relation to their impact on a mountainside (LS1-1). Groups of students each took on one of these identities, considering the mountainside and exploring the science and history behind its features through different investigations. This helped them learn the big science ideas from their perspective.

Each perspective group was responsible for collecting, analyzing, and representing data specific to their group. This set them up to jigsaw their learning, where group representatives got together to share data and cause-and-effect relationships that might explain the mountain’s appearance from their perspective. Each jigsaw group combined the ideas of each perspective group into one consensus and wrote an explanation of their response to the original question: What caused the mountain to look the way it does? They had to include all of the perspectives in their explanation as evidence to support their claims (see Supplemental Materials for a CER rubric we used).

Identifying when and how to assess students

There are many opportunities for assessment when using this approach. We have found a combination of group and individual grades to be effective and to build collaboration among our students. Depending on the standards and dimensions you target with your minifield trip, your assessments will vary. For instance, you might ask students to explore their playground after a winter storm and ultimately expect them to justify a claim about weather patterns that caused the safe or hazardous conditions they observed. If you are want to assess students’ CCC development, you might formatively assess their documentation of patterns and/or cause-and-effect relationships during their group observations. You might also extend this formative assessment to two dimensions by assessing the DCIs (e.g., states of matter and weather patterns) as students try to explain the patterns they are seeing. As an exit ticket, you can individually assess their developing understanding by giving them three different patterns and asking them to select one and explain what might be causing that pattern using what they know about weather and states of matter. Once students have investigated their questions, you can further assess their understanding by having them develop a model and/or respond to a writing prompt in which they justify a claim about the patterns they are observing. Alternatively, you might want to assess students’ ability to ask scientific questions. In this case, you might use a single rubric to show growth over time by formatively assessing their initial questions, engaging them in activities to ask better scientific questions, and reassessing them at the end of the unit. As you can see, the assessment options are numerous in terms of the dimensional foci in which you hope to engage your students. This allows for an amazing amount of flexibility in figuring out which assessment approaches will work best. As a teacher, you decide what (which dimensions) and how (collaborative vs. individual) students demonstrate their understanding; assessment will vary based on your goals. See Supplemental Materials for two example rubrics that the teacher in Figure 2 used to assess two different SEPs.

Supporting student question creation

When first engaging in observational learning, many of the initial questions students ask may fall into the K–2 grade band of asking questions/defining problems: “Ask questions based on observations to find more information about the natural and/or designed world(s)” and “Ask and/or identify questions that can be answered by an investigation” (NGSS Lead States 2013, Appendix F, p. 4). This is several grade levels below what we might expect; however, learning is a process. By giving students the opportunity to observe and wonder through a specific perspective, the teacher was able to meet them where they were. In other words, a K–2 level of questioning represented a starting point to support growth and development. Through whole-class discussion about those questions and subsequent investigations, elements of the 3–5 and 6–8 grade band could be promoted and practiced by discussing what questions were testable, emphasizing the interplay between questions and evidence, and predicting cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables (NGSS Lead States 2013). Thus, through iterative practice and teacher support, students can deepen their ability to ask more complex scientific questions. As an assessment measure, you can track student growth via a rubric from the SEP progressions (NGSS Lead States 2013; see also the Asking Questions Rubric in Supplemental Materials).

Recommendations for mini–field trips

Our team has employed this progression in multiple science teacher professional development contexts, and some of those teachers have implemented this progression into their own classrooms. Although it has taken on slightly different forms with each iteration to suit the needs of the students, all have looked at a familiar space from an unfamiliar perspective. This pattern will no doubt hold with the different groups of students with whom you work. The diversity of student observations and questions enables connections to multiple DCIs, SEPs, and CCCs as students develop evidence-based solutions to problems.

Our teachers pointed out how helpful this could be in connecting a variety of standards in authentic ways and increasing the depth with which students can consider a single space. They also noted the importance of providing a clear, concise prompt for exploring the playground through a particular perspective. By framing the perspectives within the context of a problem or story, students can gain a deeper connection to why their perspective was an important one to explore. For example, framing the maintenance person around a story of someone falling on ice and getting hurt (cause and effect around safety) gives more tangible meaning to observing the playground through their perspective. It gives a reason to learn about the science ideas of weather patterns, solar radiation, and material properties, by connecting them through a CCC and a specific perspective.

By encouraging your students to approach their surroundings through both a clear story and a scientific lens, you provide them with the rich, multidimensional learning of field trips while deepening their connections to and understanding of their reality. Learning based in authentic, manageable experiences increases opportunities for students to develop their own curiosity, interest, and motivation to learn (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2018). Figure 3 provides a checklist that can help you turn familiar spaces into opportune science learning destinations. Using this checklist, you can create a mini–field trip experience that helps students make personal connections, contextually motivates them to understand concepts, builds their confidence, and engages them in practices and habits of science.

Figure 3

As you consider your students, consult the following checklist to help transform a familiar space into a rich place for learning and design a mini–field trip of your own:

  • Identify current or upcoming standards you need to address.
  • Consider an accessible place on your school grounds. Next, identify a relevant problem and perspectives that connect to the content.
  • Identify a CCC that can act as a lens to solve that problem, and create a prompt that incorporates that CCC.
  • Receive permission from guardians and administration to take students outside.
  • Introduce the prompt and perspectives to your students. Encourage individual, paired, and group exploration and observation. Students should bring tools outside to record their findings.
  • Have students generate questions that relate to their observations. Support students in refining questions to reach the appropriate level of complexity for your intended grade band. This will change throughout the year, as students become more adept.
  • Anticipate how you will leverage the shared mini–field trip experience over the course of your learning progression to build coherence and allow students to make sense of the original problem.

Our hope is that the versatility of the mini–field trip is evident as an entry point for students to engage in coherent, meaningful science learning and is customizable to meet their abilities and learning goals. It also provides explicit practice in asking scientific questions and investigating those questions to explain an observed phenomenon, all imperative components of scientific learning. An added benefit is that this is all done in a space where students use their local place and daily experiences to contextualize and reinforce this learning. As such, this approach can be used while distance learning, if students observe their houses, yards, or neighborhoods from a specific perspective. By having students draw and write what they see, they can upload their observations and questions and engage in virtual gallery walks to find similarities, differences, and questions worth pursuing. The distance-learning setting has the added benefit of being able to compare locations, involve families, and gain deeper conceptual understanding of key science concepts in many contexts. The mini–field trip provides a format to engage in this rich, relevant learning. If you try this in a distance-learning setting, make sure you set safety expectations and inform parents (see Figure 1 for suggested precautions).

Online Resources

CER Rubric (to go with Figure 2)

Asking Questions Rubric

Table showing three perspectives used in workshops

NSTA Safety Standards  

Martha Inouye ( is a research scientist and professional development specialist, Clare Gunshenan is an outreach science educator, and Ana Houseal is an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education, all in the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Jennifer Applequist is a teacher in Sweetwater County School District 1 in Farson, Wyoming. Lorna Bath is a teacher in Sweetwater County School District 1 in Rock Springs, Wyoming.


Behrendt, M., and T. Franklin. 2014. A review of research on school field trips and their value in education. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education 9 (3): 235–245.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states (Appendix F). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NSTA Safety Standards—

Crosscutting Concepts Earth & Space Science Life Science NGSS Performance Expectations Physical Science Science and Engineering Practices Teaching Strategies Three-Dimensional Learning Middle School Informal Education

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