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10 Ideas to Transform K-12 Education

Learning physics by riding a roller coaster

A program in Springfield proves that the most effective lessons can take place outside school.

Field trips have long been a part of primary and secondary education, but expeditions — now that’s something different. At about a dozen schools throughout the state, students don’t go off campus just for a fun, informative break once or twice a year; instead, they become Indiana Joneses of information gathering and disseminating, embarking on multi-week quests, often off campus, to delve deeply into a topic and apply what they’ve learned to real life.

Based on the Outward Bound model of incremental problem solving in an unfamiliar environment, Expeditionary Learning got its start in the early 1990s with demonstration schools in five cities across the United States, including Boston. The concept has since proved quite effective, with EL students outperforming their district peers by an average of 10 percentage points in math and 13 in English language arts on standardized tests. At the 728-student Renaissance School in Springfield, it has also meant 100 percent — you read that right — graduation and college acceptance rates.


Renaissance School students have ridden roller coasters at Six Flags to understand physics; spent weeks studying nuclear technologies and working to represent them through performance-based art; and visited a church, mosque, and synagogue for a unit on religion. They’ve also received lessons on antibiotic-resistant bacteria from experts at a Baystate Medical Center lab and offered Springfield’s mayor green-energy advice that led to $160,000 in retrofits for the city’s aging school buildings.

Most projects are interdisciplinary, many include a public service component, and all are designed to contextualize lessons and ideas by addressing concrete challenges. “Fieldwork is a chance for teachers to take the curriculum and add real-world experience to it,” says Renaissance principal Arria Coburn. “So it’s about academics but also about ‘soft skills’ that are going to prepare students for work in college and the real world. It’s less about the teacher owning the learning and more about the student owning it and doing the heavy lifting.”



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