October 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT4

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Best Practices for Environmental Field Days: Structuring Your Event for Fun and Learning

Six "Best Practices" for environmental field days will help you deliver a clear message at almost any non-formal educational event involving schoolchildren, natural resource professionals, and volunteers. Based on research and experience, the guidelines form a practical foundation for field-day planning focused on understanding participants' needs, developing concise goals, and communicating goals effectively. The practices will ensure better learning for the hundreds of thousands of students who attend such events around the country every year.

Robert B. Blair
Wildlife Extension Specialist
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota

Nathan Meyer
Regional Extension Educator
Cloquet, Minnesota

Amy B. Rager
Regional Extension Educator
Morris, Minnesota

Karen Ostlie
Regional Extension Educator
Albert Lea, Minnesota

Kent L. Montgomery
Regional Extension Educator
Brainerd, Minnesota

Stephan Carlson
4-H Youth Development Educator
Minneapolis, Minnesota

University of Minnesota Extension Service


The Northwest Minnesota Water Festival, International Falls Field Days, Dakota County Outdoor Education Field Day, Fort Ridgely State Park Youth Day--these are all examples of community events that bring together natural resource professionals, volunteers, Extension agents, teachers, and schoolchildren for a day of learning about the environment.

Although these events are exciting and memorable for students, the programs may not be productive educational opportunities. These events are often structured by logistics more than educational practice. Five hundred kids are coming for 6 hours, and you have 20 people who can present activities having something to do with water. What do you do? Call it "Water Days," and rotate groups of 25 children every 20 minutes, with the presenters giving the same show 18 times. This is one solution, but perhaps you should structure the day using some basic educational guidelines.

Here, we present six "Best Practices" for creating environmental field days that are both exciting and educational. These are based on research in informal education augmented with our own experiences organizing, delivering, and evaluating dozens of these events throughout Minnesota.

Best Practice: Structure Your Field Day Around a Single Theme Incorporating Distinct Learning Goals

We suggest structuring your event around one clear theme--the idea or message you want to communicate to the students attending your field day. Themes answer the "So what?" of the event and are usually phrased as complete sentences. The topic of your Field Day might be "Prairie." The information you want your visitors to learn and retain about prairies is your theme.

Examples of potential themes for a prairie-oriented field day might be:

  • Prairies are Minnesota's most endangered ecosystem.
  • Bison, fire, and drought kept our prairies alive.
  • The prairie is alive at night.

The theme should be shared with all people involved in your event, including presenters, teachers, and students. Presentations should expand on the theme and incorporate no more than five clear, measurable learning goals.

Example goals for student learning based on an experience with the theme "Bison, fire, and drought kept our prairies alive" might be:

  • The student will be able to describe at the end of the day three ways that fire, drought, and bison affected prairie ecology before settlement.

  • The student will be able to compare and contrast at the end of the day the role of fire in pre-settlement and present prairie ecosystems.

Confer with teachers to integrate your theme with their lessons and learning objectives. Consider developing pre- and post-event classroom activities so the field day complements their curriculum.

Best Practice: Assess Your Audience Before the Event

Getting to know the students attending your event is the foundation of effective planning, marketing, and teaching. Regardless of the content of your presentation, learners will come to field days with a variety of personal experiences, learning styles, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and mental and physical abilities through which your information will be processed. To optimize education, all educators should know as much as possible about participating students and apply this information when planning the event. They should also share this knowledge with all presenters and volunteers.

Best Practice: Plan Your Setting for Effective Education

The setting for your event can provide both opportunities and challenges. Your design can influence interactions among participants. Moreover, participants have social and psychological needs that must be met before they can learn effectively. Students will need to adjust to your event site. They will be distracted from learning in a new environment unless they first explore their surroundings. Consequently, plan an activity that introduces the students to the setting, and, most of all, tell them where the bathrooms are and when they will be able to eat lunch!

Best Practice: Use Experiential and Inquiry-Based Teaching Methods

In a field setting, students learn better when they are exposed to experiential education: hands-on, inquiry-based experiences that engage participants; create a fun, hands-on environment; and help them apply new knowledge. Experiential learning takes place when the student is involved in an activity, reflects on it, determines what was useful or important to remember, and uses this information to perform another activity.

Best Practice: Develop and Implement Program Evaluation and Assessment

Beyond participant satisfaction, evaluation can be used to measure qualitative or quantitative changes in students' attitudes, knowledge, or behavior after the field day program. Effective evaluation can be implemented using methods including written surveys, observation, interviews, and talking to parents and teachers. Regardless of the metric, evaluation of outcomes is important because it provides information to make your event more educational.

Best Practice: Integrate Marketing into Your Planning Process

Although we often view it with disdain, marketing is essential to successful programming. Regardless of the quality of your event, participation will suffer if no one hears about it or feels a need to attend. Marketing processes help you design a program that is attractive to participants and meets their needs. Likewise, a well-planned marketing program can enhance the appeal of your existing programs, increasing the rate of participation and generation of revenue.

An astounding amount of time, effort, and money is expended by Extension on environmental field days in Minnesota and the United States. These "Best Practices" can ensure that this collective work creates the best educational experience possible.

For more information, contact any of the authors of this article, all of whom are involved in the "Best Practices for Environmental Field Days" program of the University of Minnesota Extension Service.