Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Classroom Compass
Volume 3 Number 1
Fall 1996

Eisenhower SCIMAST

Using Community Resources

The Community Beyond the Classroom Walls
Bringing the Community Into Your Classroom

Jonathan is very excited. His fifth-grade class is visiting the Martinez Decorative Tile Company where his mother works. Near the end of the tour, Mr. Martinez challenges the students to create a design for a tiled wall the company has been asked to complete. If he can use the design, he will treat the class to a pizza party. Now it's Jonathan's teacher who is excited. What a perfect opportunity to introduce tessellations to the class.

Taking students on field trips or using other community resources in their classes is not a new idea for teachers. Often, however, these experiences are thought to be frills or rewards that compete with instructional time in the classroom. Curriculum reform in science and mathematics calls for a new look at using community resources. The national standards in science and mathematics suggest that good programs require access to the world beyond the classroom so that students will see the relevance and usefulness of science and mathematics both in and out of school. Changing the educational experiences of children by moving beyond the classroom walls can diversify the array of learning opportunities and connect school lessons with daily life and real problems.

Away from the structure of the classroom, many characteristics of constructivism, a key idea in the current reforms, clearly emerge. For example, imagine the interactions that occur as a small group of students experiments with an interactive museum exhibit. They talk about what they see and what they know, relating what they are doing in the museum to what they have learned in and out of class. They experience, create, and solve problems together. Social discourse and direct experience help them construct an understanding of the phenomenon. The exhibit puts constructivism in action.

Teachers always face the task of pulling together the diverse understandings their students bring to the classroom. The use of community resources provides a shared memory for the class. For example, going on a field trip is only part of the total experience. As students and teachers talk about the trip and think about it after it is over, they are building shared understanding. The event becomes part of the common knowledge of the class and can be referred to in subsequent lessons. What was learned is, thus, reinforced and extended in later discussions as the teacher refers to field observations.

Teachers can effectively develop interdisciplinary units with their students outside of the classroom. The world is not made up of discrete disciplines. Students working on a city street, for example, could be doing social studies (e.g., making a survey of how a building is used today and how it has been used over the years), language arts (e.g., writing a short story about the building), mathematics (e.g., devising ways to measure the height of the building), and science (e.g., observing the materials used in the building for signs of weathering). Subject matter barriers dissolve as children learn from their environment.

Community resources that can enhance mathematics and science learning include science centers to visit (museums, nature centers, interactive science centers, aquaria, gardens and zoos), places to explore that are unique to the local school (a nearby creek, pond, city street or business), people in the community, or materials that can be borrowed or purchased. SCIMAST's Directory of Science-Rich Resources (called the Directory in the remainder of this article) can be used by teachers as a guide to science centers, sources of curriculum materials, and other kinds of science-rich resources in the region.

The Community Beyond the Classroom Walls

Hector, Angela, and Melissa are around a resonant pendulum at the science museum. At this exhibit, they can affect the swing of the heavy pendulum by attaching weak magnets and pulling on the attached cords. Angela tries it and they notice that the swing of the pendulum gets larger when she pulls on the cord. Melissa tries it but her magnet falls off as soon as she pulls the cord. Together, they try to figure out what happened.

Science Centers. A learning activity must have a purpose or reason so field trips should be thought of as part of the curriculum. As such, they should provide something to think about as well as something to do or some place to go. If possible, the teacher will want to visit the science center before the field trip to help her balance the needs of the teaching unit with the resources of the site. She can then focus on those exhibits that demonstrate the concepts she is teaching and match the students' cognitive levels. Learning activities are prepared for use before, during, and after the field trip and include student orientation material, such as a map, a list of exhibits to be visited (although they could visit others), and the educational objectives of the trip.

This focused approach will advance student learning more effectively than an unfocused scavenger hunt or a generic worksheet written without the benefit of the teacher's preparatory visit. The Directory offers numerous examples of informal places that link to curricula. The Louisiana Children's Museum (New Orleans, Louisiana), for example, has an air hockey table adapted for experimentation with angular geometry, and the Texas State Aquarium (Corpus Christi, Texas) has a laboratory facility that demonstrates the physics of buoyancy and fluids.

Children generally find interactive exhibits engaging. These exhibits can be appealing and effective tools for teaching science and mathematics and for generating a positive attitude toward learning these subjects. At the Harmon Science Center (Tulsa, Oklahoma), students walk, climb and slide through the Underground Tulsa exhibit. At the Santa Fe Children's Museum (New Mexico), children use homing pigeons to send messages from an outside site to the museum.

Outreach. Many students do not live near a zoo, nature center, or museum for a field trip to be practical, but numerous sites listed in the Directory offer outreach programs. A visit to your classroom by Wildlife on Wheels (Ellen Trout Zoo, Lufkin, Texas) or Creature Comforts (Little Rock Zoological Gardens, Little Rock, Arkansas) can be an engaging learning event for students.

Their class at City School is making a vegetation map of the city block. Shawna, Antoine, and Jennifer are recording the trees and shrubs in front of the school building and measuring their diameters when Antoine notices that little plants are growing out of the sidewalk cracks. They wonder if their map should include small plants as well as large ones and go to check with the group working around the corner.

Near the School. The lack of a nearby science center need not be a limitation. Community resources include unconventional sites, such as the tile factory or a hardware store, fabric store, farm, or ranch. While extended field trips can be rewarding, short school yard trips can be equally valuable. These allow children to discover answers for themselves in a familiar context. Whether your school is urban, suburban, or rural, it reflects the habitat of its neighborhood-the hard-topped surfaces, the soils, grasses, and trees, the weather, and so on. The young inquirer can easily return to the school yard for further data gathering if a question is left unanswered or new questions arise. A class studying the sun and its shadows in a particular location, for example, can gather data at intervals throughout the day.

Bringing the Community Into Your Classroom

Materials through the Mail. By necessity, most learning activities occur in the classroom. Organizations listed in the Directory can provide materials that enrich the curriculum and provide unique experiences for children. These inexpensive or free materials may be overlooked since they are not produced by educational publishing companies. Diaries in the Dirt, a program available from the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, includes a set of artifacts for sand box explorations. Techniques, Technology, and Trade, a curriculum available from the Arkansas Ag in the Classroom State Leader, integrates science and economics. Numerous national organizations have also developed curriculum materials; guidance materials from professional organizations are useful ties to the workplace.

Electronic Connections. Many entries in the Directory have activities and programs that involve the Internet or e-mail communication and can be valuable additions for classes that have Internet access. Marsville, a project sponsored by Phillips Laboratory (Albuquerque, New Mexico), is a simulation for elementary classes. Students create prototypes of a colony on Mars and communicate by e-mail with other participating schools about colony operations. In the GLOBE Program, students take environmental measurements and post their data on the Internet. WeatherNet, listed under National Weather Service in the Directory, is an Internet resource that includes weather data and links to the home pages of more than 300 weather-related organizations.

Sharon likes mathematics, but she did not even know what a civil engineer did until Ms. Davies and Mr. Garcia came to her class. Now she thinks she would like to be one. The activity they did with the class about bridges intrigued her. After the class, she asks Ms. Davies about her bridge activity and then asks about colleges and jobs for girls in this field.

Guests. Guest speakers from the community can provide new information and experiences to students and link the school to the world outside. The teacher should spend time with the guest before the visit so they can discuss the age level of students and kinds of activities and information appropriate for this age group; the needs of the guest during the visit and his or her general comfort level with children; the topic of the presentation and the students' general knowledge about this topic; and what the teacher can do before to make the visit a success. Staff of state agencies can serve as classroom partners or as knowledgeable resource people.

For example, staff from a conservation agency might be able to aid schools in setting up an outdoor classroom or civil engineers from the highway department may be able to show plans for a bridge project. Many potential speakers are overlooked, however, because they work in less technical fields. Valuable links to the community as well as connections between school subjects and the workplace may be created by inviting a cafeteria worker who could talk about using proportions in increasing the size of recipes. A mechanic or the owner of a feed store are other possibilities. Guests who can come back to the classroom numerous times may enhance the learning experience for the students.


The richness of the region's resources is apparent from the number and diversity of entries found in the Directory of Science-Rich Resources. Imagination and creativity in using community resources can help students connect school science and mathematics with applications in the community, as well as helping students better learn basic concepts. Children learn science and mathematics from many sources, in a range of different ways, and for a variety of purposes. Taking students to a science museum or out onto the school grounds, exposing them to innovative materials, or inviting guests who can give unique insights are a few ways to increase their learning experiences.


Knapp, C. E. (1996). Just beyond the classroom: Community adventures for interdisciplinary learning. (ED 388485) Available from ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, P. O. Box 1348, Charleston, WV 25325-1348 ($12 includes shipping and handling).

Maarschalk, J. (1988). Scientific literacy and informal science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 25, 135-146.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

National Research Council (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Rennie, L. J., & McClafferty, T. (1995). Using visits to interactive science and technology centers, museums, aquaria, and zoos to promote learning in science. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 6, 175-185.

Semper, R. J. (1990, November). Science museums as environments for learning. Physics Today, 2-8.

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