Research Summary

Motivating participation in national park service curriculum-based education programs

Academics and Fun Motivate Teachers to Attend National Park Programs

Visitor Studies

At the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), students from elementary through high school are invited to attend curriculum-based education programs onsite or in their own classrooms. While participation levels are high at the elementary-school level, park staff are interested in building participation at the middle- and high-school levels. But they’re not sure how to best attract teachers to their programs.

The authors of this paper set out to understand what motivates middle and high school teachers in surrounding schools to attend GSMNP programs with a mixed-methods study. An initial focus group helped the researchers understand the most important broad perceptions of teachers in the area. The researchers also interviewed administrators from the surrounding schools, and used the results of the focus group and interviews to help develop a survey for teachers. The surveys were administered in 14 middle and high schools near the park, and teachers of every subject area were invited to participate. In the end, the researchers received 387 valid surveys to analyze, with 136 from middle school teachers and 251 from high school teachers.

Although environmental educators often refer to financial constraints as a major barrier to field trips, the administrator interviews in this study suggested otherwise. The authors explained, “Although some administrators indicated that money for participation was a concern, most suggested it was not the primary issue in determining program attendance.” The administrators indicated they were most likely to grant permission for a field trip if the teachers could demonstrate how the trip fit with their curricula. Time constraints were another important issue to be addressed, especially related to the need for large amounts of classroom time devoted to test preparation.

The teacher surveys indicated that teachers perceived “finances” as the biggest barrier to participation in the park programs. Like the administrators, the teachers also often mentioned time constraints and connections to the curriculum as other concerns. In both the interviews and the surveys, science was perceived to be the subject area most closely linked to park programs, and science teachers were most likely to have participated in a program in the past. Middle school teachers were more likely than high school teachers to believe that the park programs could be easily incorporated into their courses, and that the programs would result in better academic achievement.

The researchers analyzed the survey results to determine which variables best predicted teachers’ intentions to participate in park programs. The researchers found that they could predict which teachers would describe themselves as most likely to participate in a park program with 74 percent accuracy based on three variables: the teacher’s perception of how easy it is to incorporate the program into their curriculum, how likely the program is to support students’ academic achievement, and whether the program will provide a fun educational experience.

The researchers offered several suggestions for putting their results into action to better market park programs to teachers. First, they suggested that “the most effective messages for motivating greater participation in the park’s educational offerings will emphasize that the programs are fun, relevant learning experiences that address academic requirements for multiple subjects and are relatively easy to incorporate into pre-existing curricula.” The researchers also suggested communicating directly with teachers about park programs, as teachers have substantial control over the decision to participate, and most teachers learn about park offerings through other teachers. And because teachers believe that financial constraints are a barrier, emphasizing the affordability of park programs is likely to help, too.

The Bottom Line

This study suggested that while financial constraints are important, they may not be the most important factor in determining whether a class participates in a field trip. Administrators in this study were more likely to first evaluate how well a program aligns with a teacher’s curriculum, with financial considerations being secondary. Teachers were most likely to participate in a field trip if they believed that (1) the program materials related to their course curriculum, (2) the program would enhance their students’ performance, and (3) the experience would be fun and educational. These features should be emphasized in marketing field trip programs to teachers. But it’s important to note that this research focused only on the schools surrounding one national park. More research would help test these results in other settings.