I once dated a girl from rural northern Vermont. She liked to say that there were four seasons up there, just like everywhere else, but they were different seasons - winter, still winter, semi-winter, and construction. I've heard our groundskeeper jokingly refer to his four seasons as mulching, watering, raking, and snow-shoveling.
As near as I can tell, our Education Department has four seasons, too - Camp, School Visit, Quiet, and Field Trip. The later has a tendency to feel the longest.
Every year, over 10,000 school children descend upon our little zoo. Their buses fill up the parking lot almost completely. Their voices blot out even the loudest of the animals' calls. Sometimes, I think I can feel the macadam shake under the impact of their sneaker-clad feet.
Field trips are one of the greatest challenges of a zoo to manage. They involve thousands of guests coming in, all at once, on a select few days. The child to adult ratio is the most skewed we ever see (as opposed to the summer, when children are most often brought by their parents), which often means more lost children, more minor injuries, and more kids getting into trouble. There are endless logistical hurdles, including how to handle bus parking, coordinating lunch time, and, often, arranging keeper talks and education presentations.
Which is all good and manageable, in the end. That's not my beef with field trips.
My issue is that it seems like kids are largely just dumped loose in the zoo. It's treated as a day off, a chance to run around and blow off steam at the end of the school year. Except for maybe a worksheet, not much effort is often made to encourage the kids to learn too much. Sometimes, it seems like zoo field trips are just something that is done for tradition's sake, without much thought being given to how to best learn from the experience.
Another observation - students on field trips all tend to be on the younger side of the spectrum. I feel that the zoo would actually be a great living classroom for older students, students who are better at making connections, handling abstract concepts (like conservation, adaptations, and animal behavior), and better equipped to supplement what they learn at the zoo with homework or research projects back at school. Even university students could benefit from time at the zoo in many ways, depending on their major. Biology majors could study the animals of course, but psychology majors could study training and enrichment, chemistry majors could study water quality, education majors with signage, business majors with non-profit accounting, etc.
A change to zoo-based-education for schoolchildren can't begin with the students, though. It needs to begin with teachers. Zoos and aquariums should work harder to bring teachers and other educators in on their programs - special teacher workshops for instance, discounted memberships for teachers, and other ways to encourage teachers to become a part of the zoo's network. We need to help them recognize the zoo as a partner and a tool that they can better use for their classroom, and maybe help them identify new ways to incorporate it into their studies. The zoo may end up being the best outdoor classroom they have.
PS: One final note. I loved going to the zoo as a small child, especially on field trips. I have come to feel, however, that zoos are a poor choice for a class' first ever field trip. Students on their first field trip may have a hard time understanding that the rules of school still apply, even though they are off grounds. I'd say it's best to have that lesson reinforced in a smaller, more enclosed, easier to control environment, not twenty-five acres of wild animals. Come to the zoo when they're a little more familiar with the idea of what is expected on a field trip.