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Field Trips to Informal Science Institutions With English Language Learners

MARIA PINEDA Grade 6 Science Teacher MS 131Chinatown, New York City

I teach in a unique environment in one of Manhattan’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, Chinatown. Most of my students have only recently come to the United States from Mainland China. Many have never had exposure to the English language until they came to my school. They are unable to write the letters of the alphabet or recognize their own name when pronounced by a native English speaker. Outside the doors of our school the students do not need to speak English, and at times it is a disadvantage to speak English in Chinatown. 

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) gave my students a fantastic opportunity to participate in the NOAA Science Literacy for Grade 6 English Language Learners Program to learn science and the English language through hands-on activities and field trips to the Museum. The materials and experiences provided by NOAA and AMNH were invaluable for my students’ learning. After their experience in the program, my students were burning with questions and concerns (expressed in English) about the environment. I would like to imagine that they have gained a better sense of their role as part of the global ecosystem and came away from their experience in the program with a strong desire to help protect the environment.


As a participant in the NOAA program, I was able to go to AMNH for professional development workshops to learn about weather, how the climate is changing around the world, and how scientists are monitoring changes in the atmospheric temperature.

A small photo of school text books about science and nature superimposed over the bottom left corner of a larger photo of a big map of the United States tacked to a classroom wall.

The NOAA program provided me with a globe, map, and books with strategies for teaching English language learners in science. These were visualization tools that facilitated the visual learning techniques I use in my classroom to bridge the language gap.

From an auditorium stage a man speaks to an audience of Chinese-American schoolchildren.

In addition to supplying our classroom with equipment, the program provided an opportunity for my students and me to visit AMNH and meet one of the Museum’s scientists, Dr. Adriana Aquino. After almost six months my students still talk to me about the experience of meeting Dr. Aquino. With the help of an interpreter my students were able to interact with Dr. Aquino and ask her questions about her work as an ichthyologist.

Row of sixth grade boys seated in auditorium look at and pass a small jar between them.

Dr. Aquino told my students about her research work with the South American armored catfish. Students enjoyed looking at the specimens of several different kinds of catfish that Dr. Aquino showed us. Dr. Aquino gave many of my female students the opportunity to see that there are female scientists.

an image of Earth from space on September 2, 2009

Getting my students excited about learning is a big feat, and with the support of NOAA and AMNH we were able to learn about what we as individuals can do to help stop climate change through the weather visualizations and other activities that we did in the program.


In our field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, we visited the Hall of North American Mammals to observe and record our observations of cloud types in three different dioramas: the Bison, Mule Deer, and Brown Bear dioramas.


Observing the dioramas allowed my students to practice their English speaking skills with docents and museum staff.


We also visited the Climate Change exhibit at the Museum. We were able to delve into aspects and concerns about climate change because of the things we were able to touch and see at the Museum. My students wanted to learn more about alternative sources of energy, the polar ice caps melting, and what is happening to the polar bears as a result of global warming.


Students were particularly concerned when they saw a model of what would happen to New York City when the polar ice caps melt. Their neighborhood — Chinatown — would be underwater. Six months later my students were still talking about this. This visualization allowed us to transition directly into an exploration about adaptations and why and how living things adapt to their environment.


My students were so concerned about the sea levels rising that they all said they wanted to move back to China, where it was safe. We took pictures of ourselves and used various nature magazines to make a collage of an imaginary adaptation we would like to have when the sea levels rise.