Best Practices for Field Days E-Tips for Environmental Educators
Welcome to this edition of the EE E-Tip for Field Days - the quarterly source for practical tips to raise the impact of field day programs. We want to hear your suggestions for improving this resource. Send your ideas to Nate Meyer.
EE E-TIP: Use transitions to link concepts and build meaning
In the last EE E-Tip we mentioned that although field day presentations vary widely depending on theme, situation, and the personal style of the presenter, the best presentations clearly connect activities to the overall field day theme and topics presented at the other field day stations.
Making those connections can be tricky. As recommended in an earlier EE E-Tip, using advance organizers to clearly set the stage and connect your presentation to the field day's theme is a good start. But there is another essential tool for connecting ideas on a field day. Transitions serve two critical functions:
- Transitions support advance organizers and conclusions in reiterating the relationship between the session and the field day's theme and other stations, and
- Transitions bind together multiple points within the individual session.
That's some heavy lifting for a few humble sentences!
Transitions help your students make sense of your presentation flow.
Your presentation is much like a speech or even a research paper. In both these formats, the speaker or writer uses indicators to instruct listeners or readers how to organize and use what they are hearing or reading. These transitions help the listener keep track of what you have said and get prepared for where you are going.
Our brains always search for ways to connect bits of information with what we already know and do. If we cannot make these important connections, we often forget the information. The education philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1959) called these "inert ideas". Recognizing this need for connection, experts like Ham, Regnier, Gross & Zimmerman (1994) point out that effective presentations must help students process and remember information. Effective presenters avoid assuming the connections between topics are obvious or self-evident.
You can use transitions in a variety of ways during your presentations.
During your next presentation, consider these techniques for building bridges between topics or activities, similar to the way you would in a term paper:
- Summarize the meaning of the preceding points and preview the coming points.
- Revisit your title, objectives, or a key word between activities to reiterate their relationship to the task at hand.
- Show HOW the piece relates to the whole - as part of a timeline, a geographical relationship, shared properties, joint contributors to a phenomenon, etc.
- Ask and re-ask a question at various points to illustrate how participants' knowledge on a topic is building.
- Pause! A good solid pause (5 seconds) clearly indicates that something is changing.
- Consider changing your position relative to your students. Teach from a different angle for part of the session.
- Be specific and direct about the connection between topics. If you poll the students for guesses about the connections between the points or activities, be sure to summarize their points with your unequivocal statement of your view of the relatedness between the points.
Create effective transitions using these tips.
Keep it simple, but not too simple. Sometimes, a simple word or phrase can serve as a transition to alert listeners to a change in direction. "However" and "On the other hand" and "Meanwhile" signal listeners that a new idea is coming. In this case, think of transitions as signposts you find along a hiking trail. When you arrive at a junction in the trail, you want to know with confidence what direction you will go next. A verbal signpost will tell listeners, "We've been walking down this road, and next we'll go this direction." David Garvin, from the Harvard Business School, recommends that transitions not be too abrupt so as to be jarring, or overly smooth so learners miss it altogether. Two to three sentences is enough to establish the link.
Look for choppy points in your presentations. If you sense that your presentation is choppy, if people ask questions about material you finished discussing several minutes ago, or you have several discrete activities within your field day presentation, you may need to work on your transitions. A variety of connective devices, such as these from Colorado State University's Writing Studio, or these from The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can help you express the logical relationship between your ideas.
Make sure you can see the connections in your presentations. Transitions are rooted in your own understanding of the connectedness of the sections of the presentation. You must be clear in your mind how the ideas relate before you can explain this to others. If you have trouble seeing how parts of a presentation connect, maybe they don't and you should leave something out. Consider sketching out a visual depiction of the relationship between your ideas using a concept map to help clarify how the pieces fit together.
Here's a hypothetical example: Imagine a field day with a theme such as "Watersheds: We all live downstream." One session might have objectives like: "Students will describe how water flows through a watershed," and "Students will imagine water moving in the watershed around them." Let's say this hypothetical session includes a watershed demonstration in a plastic bin and viewing of a nearby wetland since it's there. What can the presenter say to connect the simulation with the viewing experience?
The presenter might choose to highlight the similarity between the two:
"We've been looking at our hills and valleys made out of newspaper and paper towels, and we saw how the squirt bottle made 'rain.' The rain flowed from the tops of the hills downhill and formed a wetland in a low spot. That same process is happening in the real world where we're standing right now. The rain that fell here last week is slowly making its way to the nearest low spot - that wetland. Now, we're going to look at the wetland and talk about how rain water flows around here."
Or, the presenter might choose to highlight the time difference of the water flow in each location:
"In this activity, it took about a minute for our 'rain' to flow from the top of our pretend mountain into our little pond. How long do you think it will take for real rain that lands right where we are standing to get into the wetland over there? Let's go over there to look for evidence of water entering the wetland, and see if we can observe how fast water is moving."
Another option would be to preview a question you will use as wrap up:
"In our simulation, we saw the rain water seep downhill toward our wetland. Next, we are going to look at the real wetland over there, and when we come back, I'm going to ask you how water enters this very wetland."
When you provide solid transitions within your field day session, your presentation will flow smoothly and feel unified. Transitions not only reinforce the relationship between the session's activities and the field day theme, but also support the session's objectives by reminding participants how the pieces fit together. Special attention to these details of your field day presentation makes a few short comments into heavy lifters.
For more information on using effective teaching methods for field day presentations, review the Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - pages 61 to 73. Curriculum copies, workshop and other information are available online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays.
Use the new Best Practices for Field Days Events Calendar to promote your field days and festivals, connect with presenters and volunteers. Learn more about the calendar and get started at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/Calendar/.
Learn more about evaluating field days and water festivals with the Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/evaltool.html.
To learn more about the Best Practices for Field Days, read our short article in the online Journal of Extension http://www.joe.org/joe/2004october/tt4.shtml.
Best Practices for Field Days is a University of Minnesota Extension program. The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.
Ham, S. (1992). Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small budgets. Golden, CO: North American Press.
Regnier, K., Gross, M. & Zimmerman, R. (1994) The Interpreter's guidebook: Techniques for Programs and Presentations. 3rd ed. University of Wisconsin Stevens Point: UW-SP Foundation Press, Inc.
Whitehead, A. N. (1959). The aims of education and other essays. New York: The Macmillan Company.