Museum field trips, once among the most memorable experiences of the school year, have seen declines across the country in the past decade. Budget cuts and pressure to teach to the test have kept students on campus and in their classrooms, museum experts say.
The declines have been significant; some museums report student attendance dropped by double-digits.
"It's of great concern," says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. "What we've heard from museums across the country over the past 10 years is that there are increasing barriers to field trips."
National numbers are hard to come by, according to Merritt, but the trend of the last decade at individual museums has been discouraging. In Los Angeles, the Autry National Center museum's field trip numbers have dropped every year since 2010, down 13 percent. And until the 2013-2014 school year, the L.A. Natural History Museum's field trip numbers were down nearly 20 percent from a high in 2007-2008.
Merritt says museums around the country are stepping up efforts to keep students engaged, even if they can't get them to their locations.
Some museums are sending education department staffers into the schools to conduct classroom lessons, bringing along kits of museum materials to show the students. They are digitizing their materials and, in some cases, creating specifications so that schools with 3D printers can create copies of museum artifacts for students to examine.
Their efforts may be working to promote more interest in field trips.
Chicago's Field Museum reports an incremental rise in student field trips beginning in 2012 and field trips are currently 3 percent ahead of last year, after seeing declines for many years. The Natural History Museum saw attendance rebound as well. Last school year, the museum recorded visits from more than 131,000 students, up 18 percent from the year before. Staffers say part of the credit goes to grant writing efforts that attracted funding for transportation.
But in-person student field trips are still at risk, according to Merritt.
"If you as a parent value the experience that your child gets at this kind of immersive, inspirational learning environment you need to voice that opinion with your school board," she said.
University of Arkansas researcher Brian Kisida, who co-authored a study on the educational value of field trips, knows from his own experience that schools are changing their approach to the classic museum field trip — and not all for the better.
"My kids were both bribed," he said. "If they did good on the standardized test, everybody would get to go down to the Chuck E. Cheese and have a pizza party."
These type of outings are known as "reward" field trips, which Kisida thinks lack valuable enrichment for students.
His study surveyed nearly 11,000 students selected by lottery to visit the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in northwest Arkansas. The study found that students who visited showed modest bumps in measures like critical thinking, social tolerance and historical empathy. Students who had limited access to museums showed the greatest gains.
"When we looked at minority students, students in high-poverty schools and students in rural schools, we found the effects were sometimes two to three times larger," he said.
One museum takes to the road
Around 2009 and 2010, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach began seeing declines in its field trip numbers. When Stuart Ashman, the museum's president and CEO, came on board in 2011, he brought with him an idea to address the problem: why not purchase a school bus and drive kids to the museum themselves?
The museum successfully raised funds for the project, attracting a major $25,000 donation from Hyundai along with other contributions. By November 2012, Ashman and his team had secured $30,000 to purchase a bus.
Soon, the museum realized that getting a bus was just the beginning of their challenges. To get the vehicle up and running, officials endured 22 months of fits and starts, navigating a maze of information on what was needed to get the bus ready for its first school field trip.
By the time all was done, the bus went through two paint jobs, a letter of appeal to the governor, drivers' training and licensing, and four separate visits from California Highway Patrol inspectors.
Finally, the museum landed its school bus certification.
In late September, Ashman lived his dream. He rode the bus for a half-hour to pick up a group of students at Anton Elementary School in East L.A. — the first school group to ride the bus.
"You can tell I'm emotional about it," he said, as he sat in the front row bench of the 1998 Thomas Saf-T-Liner, recounting the long journey to get the school bus to Anton Elementary. "Here it is, and now it's going on the road."
Later in the morning, several dozen students boarded the bus for its maiden field trip. Many played on tablets to pass the time. A cooler filled with their lunches was packed in the yellow diesel's storage bin.
Fifth-grader Miranda Mendoza imagined what the day might hold. Like all of the students on the bus, she'd never been to the museum before.
"I'm curious about, like, what happened a long time ago," she said. "I just want to go."
Data: Decline in field trips at L.A. Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts
Between the 2007-2008 school year to 2013-2014, enrollment in Los Angeles Unified declined by 6 percent. By comparison, the head count for field trips fell 56 percent in Los Angeles Unified. The field trip data reflects head counts on each bus ride, not the number of students who experienced field trips.
Los Angeles Unified data for 2011-2012 school year was not included here because of reporting differences for that year.
In Long Beach Unified, student enrollment dropped 17 percent from the 2002-2003 school year to 2013-2014. Head count for field trips fell 34 percent in same period. The field trip data reflects head counts on each bus ride, not the number of students who experienced field trips.