Reflections on a collaborative experience working with a public school, a Cincinnati Great Park, and fantastic colleagues

It began with a conversation over a beer in Fall 2020. Several faculty in the UC Department of Geosciences were interested in better connecting with the community and sparking interest in geosciences with younger audiences. We reached out to a colleague, Chris Anderson, an enthusiastic and charismatic science communicator and educator who works closely with Cincinnati Public Schools as an instructional coach, to discuss ideas. Chris had a seemingly straightforward and very doable suggestion: Run a field trip for a 4th grade elementary school class. He even had a school in mind: Bond Hill Academy.

Initial Planning

We spent the next few months brainstorming ideas for what a field trip might include, and where it could occur. All of us liked the idea of a field trip, but actually organizing and running it seemed daunting given the other demands on our time. Eventually, we started considering one of Hamilton County’s Great Parks, which have good infrastructure and could comfortably accommodate large groups. I reached out to Miami-Whitewater Forest Park to discuss logistics, and was connected with Luke Ogonek, who is the Education Manager for this park and other western Great Parks.

I learned from Luke that he and his counterpart Julie Robinson (who is responsible for eastern parks in the Great Parks system), have programming in place for elementary school groups. Suddenly, running the trip seemed a lot less intimidating. We at UC wouldn’t need to design a trip from scratch and instead could work with existing programming (and people who have ample practice working with elementary school groups). We just needed to confirm what the classroom teachers wanted their students to learn (which would dictate where the field trip would take place), and to coordinate a date for the trip.

A student and I (Brooke Crowley) looking at a fossil together in the creek bed (photo credit Chris Anderson).

We first tried to set up a virtual meeting with the teachers with the intent of running a trip in Spring 2022. However, it took us several months to find a meeting time that would work for both teachers, and when the day and time we scheduled finally arrived, neither teacher was able to attend the meeting. We were initially frustrated, but then learned from Chris that the classrooms at Bond Hill Academy had been reorganized just before our meeting. One teacher had been moved to a different school and the other was now in charge or multiple classes spanning multiple grades. Understandably, she no longer had the bandwidth to try to coordinate a trip with us.

We then spent several additional months trying to find a way to run a trip during the school year of 2022-2023, but ultimately decided to pick a location and set a date early during the Fall semester of 2023 that we could plan around far in advance. We would not know who the teachers would be until after the semester began in late August, but Chris assured us it would work out. And it did! With the support of UC Center for Public Engagement with Science (PEWS) to help cover bus and student program fees, we successfully ran a field trip earlier this semester on Monday, September 11th.

The field trip

My colleague, Dr. Dylan Ward (another professor in the Department of Geosciences), and I arrived at Sharon Woods Park and met our two activity leaders, Lisa Salehpour and Tom Hughes. Together, we greeted 32 4th-graders, three teachers, and Chris, as they got off the school bus.

Tom Hughes helping students pretend to be a mammoth (with butterfly nets and a drainage tube). Photo credit me (Brooke Crowley).

I then spent the next two hours being a fly on the wall and watching Lisa and Tom work their magic. I was blown away with their energy and creativity. They immediately got the students organized into groups and focused. Students pretended to be organisms that died and became preserved over time. They crawled around on the floor, were buried by a tarp, spritzed with water, and then ultimately exhumed. They also got to interact with both living and fossil animals, and a neat, animated 3D rendering of Cameroceras (a very large extinct relative of squid).

The trip ended with a fossil hunt in the mostly dry bed of Sharon Creek. I noted that the students were engaged during the entirety of the visit, but they were most enthusiastic about finding their own “treasures”. Their excitement was tangible and audible. We spent about 30 minutes picking up rocks and carefully inspecting them to identify preserved fossils (and I am told that at least one student tried to bring home about 30 rocks that were stuffed in her pockets).  

Before departing, I asked the students what they had learned. Their responses were all positive, including: “Playing with Rocks and nature can be fun”; “What a wonderful day”; and “I enjoyed this”. Nobody mentioned the science, but I am not surprised. Our goal was to give the students a positive experience and memorable day. I was delighted to get to interact with the students and help them make observations and discoveries. These were the connections I had hoped for, and perhaps 10 years from now, we’ll see one or more of these students again as a Geoscience major at UC.  

Lisa Salehpour showing the students some local fossils.

Nature Interpreter Tom Hughes noted similar aims: “My goal for these programs isn’t for kids to remember how big a Cameroceras could get, or the exact time period the Cincinnatian fossils come from. My goal is to provide a great experience that hopefully sparks an interest in the fossils of their own backyards. If I get any of the kids to start their own fossil collection, or become inspired to learn more about the world around them, I regard that as a success.”  

Lessons learned from the trip

What can we learn from this experience moving forward? While it is powerful to run field trips (taking groups of kids to a new place), it is logistically very challenging and may be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, a lot of topics tend to be covered in a short time span during a trip, and it seems unlikely that the students will retain much of this information. In the future, it will likely be much more feasible to focus on doing classroom visits. This would allow us to scaffold and build on learning content over time, and would likely be less demanding for everyone involved (as we learned, simply being a liaison takes a lot of time and energy).  

I am very grateful to everyone who helped make this trip happen. Thank you to my colleagues, Dylan Ward and Andy Czaja; Chris Anderson, our MVP, who coordinated with the teachers and dealt with all of the behind-the-scenes logistics; Caitlin Tyree, Kelly Boosinger, Terri Willison, and Kenya Moffett, our CPS teachers and logistical staff; Luke Ogonek, Julie Robinson, Tom Hughes, and Lisa Salehpour from Hamilton County Great Parks; and of course the PEWS (especially Max Cormendy).