Expanding Horizons: Becoming a “Road” Scholar

Dr Sally Stephens, Director of the Science Faculty

In 2003, the UK government released a Green Paper entitled Every Child Matters, which evolved from the failure of several organisations to protect an 8-year-old girl from abuse that eventually proved fatal. In the foreword, the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, implored those who are committed to meeting children’s needs to go further than keeping them free from harm, saying “we want to maximise the opportunities open to them – to improve their life chances, to change the odds in their favour” (Department for Education and Skills, 2003, p.1). Through consultation with children and their families, it was ascertained that the five outcomes which mattered most to young people were: enjoying good physical and mental health; being protected from harm and neglect; getting the most out of life and developing the skills for adulthood; making a positive contribution to society; and achieving economic well-being (Department for Education and Skills, 2003). Ensuing legislation made provision for children, irrespective of their background or circumstances, to have whatever support they needed to achieve these goals. This resulted in sweeping reforms in many government services, including education.

Achieving these five outcomes places many demands on an education system, but to be competitive and meet the challenges of life in a constantly-changing, ever-expanding global society, the UK’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES) argued that students need an ‘expanded’ education, one that is not confined to the classroom (Department for Education and Skills, 2006). DfES coined the term, ‘learning outside the classroom’ or LOtC and, in 2006, outlined their vision in a manifesto of the same name. They defined LOtC as the use of places other than the classroom to provide a variety of challenging and exciting experiences that should improve students’ capacity to learn. They believed that places such as parks and green urban spaces, museums, galleries, science centres, camps, outdoor education centres and wilderness and adventure expeditions can have a significant impact on student engagement and therefore learning. The manifesto described both formal and non-formal, extra-classroom experiences as often being the most memorable for students because they permit them to make sense of their world, not only intellectually, but physically, socially, and emotionally as well.  Such experiences are believed to be even more important in the current risk-averse climate where the natural risk-taking involved in many much-loved childhood games is eliminated for fear of potential injury (Lester & Russell, 2008).

Malone (2008) was commissioned to investigate the belief that LOtC can lead to personal and economic wellbeing and therefore to achieving the five Every Child Matters outcomes. A review of fifty international studies led Malone to conclude that, for young people, every experience matters. She found evidence that children’s learning, social interactions, physical health, emotional well-being and attitudes and values all benefitted from experiential learning in alternative settings in the world outside the classroom. Students with stimulating out-of-classroom learning experiences exhibited improved knowledge and skill acquisition and achieved higher scores in class tests. They had greater levels of physical fitness and motor skill development and, as a measure of their increased social competence, were able to interact with their peers and adults in new and diverse ways. These students showed better leadership qualities, improved attention, confidence and self-esteem, and even proved to be more environmentally responsible (Malone, 2008). These results have some support in the growing field of neuroscience. Renowned neuroanatomist, Dr Marian Diamond, investigated the effect of environment on brain growth in rats and demonstrated how different inputs, enriched or impoverished, can alter the structure of a rat’s cerebral cortex –  the part of the brain that deals with higher cognitive processing – and consequently the animal’s behaviour. Her research showed that while stimulating environments can increase cortical growth, there was no thickening of the cortex unless the rats were actively interacting with the environment; passive observation was not enough (Diamond, nd). Since no two human brains are exactly alike, the nature of enrichment for human beings can take many forms. While the Science Faculty offers many LOtC activities, we believe that educational travel, such as the US Space Trip, is a life-changing experience that could give participating students the edge they need to improve their life chances.

Travel has long been touted as a unique source of experiential learning in that it provides the opportunity to learn things that could never be learned in the classroom. When students graduate they will go to work in the global community. They will need to understand the culture, customs, history, geography of other nations. Some they can learn in the classroom but, according to Dr Diamond’s work, it is better for students to experience these things firsthand. Consequently, as a School, we are interested in the ways in which school-initiated, educational travel contributes to the development of young people. Not only do students reap the benefits of the educational component while enjoying the inherent rewards of the travel experience itself but, because the travel is initiated by the school, they get to experience and share these memories with their friends and other like-minded people.

The US Space Trip was instigated in 1992 and has been run every two years since 1993. It is open to all students in Years 10 to 12, whether or not they study science. This year, thirty-nine students and four teachers formed the touring party, with an itinerary that included tours of Washington DC and San Francisco, visits to places like Kennedy Space Centre, Yosemite National Park, Islands of Adventure and Alcatraz, and physical activities such as cycling and smooth-water kayaking. However, the primary purpose of the trip was to attend the US Space and Rocket Centre, a residential camp in Huntsville, Alabama, commonly known as Space Camp, where we participated in the two week-long programmes that are the most age-appropriate for our students – Aviation Challenge: Mach III (AC) and Advanced Space Academy (ASA). Twenty-four of our students participated in AC, which is a programme designed to test a trainee’s ability to work independently and as a member of a naval aviation squadron. The culmination of AC training required students to use their understanding of aeronautics and survival skills to plan and execute a rescue mission. ASA is a hands-on training programme designed to help students experience some of the mental, emotional, and physical demands astronauts face during their voyages. Fifteen of our students trained within this programme as shuttle pilots or mission specialists. Interestingly, the US Space and Rocket Center has its own rich history. It was first envisioned by German scientist, Wernher von Braun, the technical mastermind behind Germany’s rocket development during World War II and the man who designed the Saturn V rocket that took us to the Moon. The Center opened in 1970 as a public-relations extension of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) George C. Marshall Spaceflight Center, which it adjoins.

Travelling to new destinations like the US can be a transformational experience for young people, with benefits that cross all the dimensions of child development. Students faced many cognitive challenges on the Space Trip but the curious were amply rewarded. They were exposed to new science concepts, foreign historical, political and geographical knowledge, and unfamiliar language idioms. There were many situations that called for the use of logic, problem-solving and organisational skills. And they constantly needed to be mindful of their personal safety and the security of their belongings. Travelling can also present physical challenges for students. The weather was particularly hot and humid in some of our destinations and the activities we chose to pursue in these places often involved a lot of walking. Lifting twenty-three kilogram suitcases was difficult for some, although help was always close at hand. Travel to different destinations is also about developing socially and emotionally. Students on the Space Trip needed to be adaptable, flexible, patient, tolerant, and considerate. In return, many were rewarded with a new or modified outlook on life. After an exhausting term, they were able to relax, socialise, explore and, with some money in their pockets, engage in indulgent behaviour that is not part of their normal routine. Tourism researchers have investigated the disparity between the tourist experience and their normal everyday lives and emphasise how distance from home allows tourists “to suspend the power of norms and values of their daily lives and think about their own lives and societies from a different perspective” (Kim, 2010, p. 781). Many students on trips such as this realise how good they have it at home and how indulged they often are when travelling with their families.

Travelling in a large school group offers many different challenges to those experienced when travelling with one’s family. In her pre-Space Trip address, Deputy Principal Mrs M McConaghy stressed to students that they must remember that they are in the company of people who like but do not love them and for whom they are “not the centre of the universe”. In the interest of group harmony, students have to move from self-interest to altruism, developing their social and interpersonal skills on the way. They learn to be supportive of their peers and to have that support reciprocated. This ability to make a positive contribution to the group leads to a sense of belonging, the feeling of being valued, and group cohesion.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from parents, teachers and the students themselves that testifies to the value of our participation in the programmes offered at Space Camp, evidence that is supported by extensive research commissioned by the American Camp Association. This organisation undertook a large-scale investigation of children’s experience at camp in the hope of “validating the long-held conventional wisdom that camp is a powerful growth experience for young people” (American Camp Association, 2005, p. 2). Consequently, researchers looked for growth in self esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, adventure and exploration, environmental awareness and values as the outcomes of a student’s camp experience. More than 5000 families along with the staff of 80 different types of camps from across the United States took part in the research. Camps included both day and residential, one-week and multi-week, and single gender and co-ed. Participants were surveyed pre-camp, post-camp, and a follow-up after six months. The results were varied. Campers and parents reported no statistically significant growth from pre- to post-camp for environmental awareness or values and no reported growth for either over the six months following the camp experience. They noted statistically significant growth for friendship skills and adventure and exploration from pre- to post-camp but discovered that it was not able to be sustained in a non-camp setting and so decreased on the follow-up survey. Most importantly though, the results tell a story of positive growth in self esteem, independence, and leadership that persisted for at least six months. Space Trip participants and their parents report a similar evolution. This is very eloquently expressed by a parent who wrote to thank the School “not just for the experiences on the itinerary, but for introducing the girls to those new and sparkly other worlds of friendship navigation, the outer edges of excess and consumption … and discovering their empathetic better selves … experiences that brought her home delighted to know she has a place in the wider world”.

Every experience a child has matters to her development. Travelling abroad offers opportunities for growth in all of the important developmental domains. It opens young minds to a plethora of ideas that will broaden their knowledge and understanding and impact upon the rest of their lives. School-initiated educational travel does all this with added benefits. This type of travel is tremendously empowering for students. It challenges them mentally, physically and socially, putting them in touch with their attitudes, feelings, and values. It foregrounds their agency to act in the world, to make personal choices and to contribute to their community. It further cements their global citizenship. For some students, a school trip is their first brush with overseas travel.  For most it is the first time they have travelled without a family member. For all it is a unique educational experience. Expanding horizons through school-initiated educational travel can produce a tremendous appetite for learning as students seek to better understand the world they share. It can improve their life chances and change the odds in their favour.


American Camp Association. (2005). Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from http://www.acacamps.org/sites/default/files/images/research/directions.pdf

Department for Education and Skills (2003). Every Child Matters. Presented to Parliament by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury by Command of Her Majesty, September 2003. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/CM5860.pdf

Department for Education and Skills (2006). Learning Outside the Classroom (Publication). Retrieved September 26, 2011, from https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/LOtC.pdf

Diamond, M. (n.d.). News from the Neurosciences: The Significance of Enrichment. Retrieved October 11, 2011, from http://home.blarg.net/~building/neuro/diamond_enrich.htm

Kim, J. (2010). Determining the Factors Affecting the Memorable. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing, 27(8), 780-796. Retrieved September 9, 2011, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10548408.2010.526897

Lester, S. & Russell, W. (2008). Play for a change. Play policy and practice: A review of contemporary perspectives (Summary Report). Play England. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/120519/play-for-a-change-summary.pdf

Malone, K. (2008) Every Experience Matters: An evidence based research report on the role of learning outside the classroom for children’s whole development from birth to eighteen years, Report commissioned by Farming and Countryside Education for UK Department Children, School and Families. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from http://www.face-online.org.uk/face-news/every-experience-matters

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