Understanding the Big Picture: A Sustainable Field Trip

A bus driving in the Mountains

Raised on a farm in rural Montana, I’ve always had an appreciation for the hard work that goes into growing food.  It also put me in close proximity to the alarming consequences of misused arable land.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps and continued to learn about the global and social issues that affect every nation.  I quickly realized that I was most effective as a change-maker when I was in the classroom inspiring students to act.  I continue to call students to action in my current role as a garden coordinator at the American School of Dubai where I oversee our Edible Education program which focuses on global issues with food at it’s center. 
-Sandra Carden

A Novice Teacher

My first overseas teaching job was in Cameroon. I had just completed two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was ready to try my hand at teaching at an international school.  After teaching in an underprivileged school in the states, I was delighted by the numerous benefits of teaching overseas- a better salary, paid housing, and traveling with students to exotic destinations for school trips.   

The first time I took an overseas trip with students, it was a whirlwind of museum visits, exquisite dining, and shopping while students practiced delegation at their first-ever MUN conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.  For most of my Cameroonian students, it was the first time they’d traveled outside the African continent. They were shocked by the cold and for some, it was the first time they experienced being a minority in a city full of white people.  For many of the Russian delegates, it was the first time they’d interacted with an African. The Russian Embassy warned us of racial prejudice and our warm students quickly rose to the challenge. While they debated, I spent my spare time shopping and hanging out with the other Russian chaperones.  I learned so much about post-communism and how clever pickpockets were. 

I was a young teacher.   I didn’t know how much resonance this trip would have on my students.  It would be the highlight of their year. It was their chance to be independent of their parents.   Time would slow down as bonds were formed with students they barely knew. But I missed so many teachable moments and basically acted like I was on vacation, not educating young minds.  It’s something that I’m still ashamed of.

Now that I have twenty years of chaperoning trips under my belt, I have a very different approach. I see these trips as leverage points to increase their understanding of the world and to increase their ability to be changemakers.

Powerful Field Trips

United Nations Global Goals:

As part of the preparation for taking students to the southern part of Nepal, we first learn about the Global Goals that we will interact with – Responsible Consumerism, Gender Equity, No Hunger and Life on Land.  So often students feel powerless to make the world a better place. This United Nations framework and the trip experience supports their capacity to put theory into practice.


We traveled by bus to a small village on the edge of Chitwan Park to build biogas units. The bus ride is arduous, but it has a lower carbon footprint and offers the students an opportunity to watch Nepalis bustling about their day.  Once in Chitwan, we travel to our biogas project by bike. It’s important for the locals to see foreigners using the same transportation that they use daily. It offers our students, some who have personal drivers, the chance to develop empathy. It also increases the probability for our students to interact with locals.  Often, it begins with a wave or a smile. Sometimes, our urban students, who are not very adept at bike-riding, careen wildly into yards with chickens squawking. This experience is often the starting point for developing sustainable relationships.

“The biogas unit uses the waste of humans and cows to create methane gas to cook food.

“This experience is often the starting point for developing sustainable relationships.

Understanding The Big Picture

The Big “Why”: 

When going on these trips, we want students to fully grasp the “Big Picture”.  Cooking in Nepal is often done with wood taken from these protected forests. Searching for wood takes hours and is the work of girls and women.   Every year, a family of ten in Nepal uses 4 ½ tons of firewood. As they cut down trees nearer to them, they have to walk even further to find wood.  As a result, girls often miss school to gather wood. Because women are gone for so many hours in the day, they are rarely part of the decision making in the village.  In addition, the forest is home to tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants, so it is also dangerous work. Every year, hundreds of women take the four-hour trip to get wood and never return. 

Food is mostly prepared in dark, smoky kitchens especially during the rainy season.  Women often go blind or get lung cancer from the thick smoke. This project not only frees up hours of a woman’s life but has an immediate improvement to her health. The biogas unit uses the waste of humans and cows to create methane gas to cook food.  The diversion of methane and the resulting carbon sink of protecting the trees in the forest makes this trip carbon neutral. 

Waste Reduction: 

We refuse disposable plastic water bottles.  All students are expected to bring a reusable water bottle.   Instead, the students use refillable water stations. We even bring some extra ones from lost and found in case any are lost.  All snacks we give students on the long bus ride are fresh, with no packing. We source food locally so it’s not transported in from Kathmandu.

It’s incredibly important for students to learn that each of our personal actions have an impact.  There are simple steps to support developing this mindset. When students form a line to eat, I remind them that they must eat everything that they put on their plate. Students have to be instructed on how to fill their plates as many of them are accustomed to the brunch buffet lifestyle in Dubai. Those who don’t learn their lesson the first time are instructed to line up last so they have plenty of time to see how it is properly done. Most learn very quickly, that I mean business. When food is scraped from plates, I weigh it for data.  Within a day, everyone is able to self correct. They understand that it’s a crime to waste food when 10% of the population is undernourished, most of those being children.  By putting in these routines from the beginning, students learn that they play a part, at every moment, to make a difference.

In Chitwan, we camp alongside the river.  They use a latrine. It’s hard on them, but they learn how little they need to survive.  Our students do not stay in five-star hotels. Most five star hotels in Nepal are owned by rich Indians so, little of the money spent stays in the local economy.  In addition, these hotels are notorious water and electricity hoggers. At our campsite, students are allowed two minute showers every couple of days. The water is frigidly cold, so it’s not difficult to keep it short.

All for Naught

We are careful to avoid the savior mentality that can come with this type of work. Let’s not delude ourselves.  We’re bringing a bunch of unskilled, privileged seventh graders with little to no work experience, to build. In a typical voluntouristic trip, students, who are not skilled carpenters often do a substandard job and leave feeling good about making the world a better place. Afterward, skilled labor swoops in to redo the work.   This is not only unsustainable, it’s insulting.

In Nepal, our students are directed by no-nonsense female masons.  They form a human chain and quickly pass first stones, bricks, and lastly buckets of cement to these demanding women.  This menial work would normally be done by men of the village, but most are in the Middle East building towers and guarding compounds.  Even at our own school, most of our security team are Nepali men.

Teacher Modeling: They Are Always Watching

But all of this would have little effect if the chaperones of the group weren’t committed to modeling the expected behaviors.  Children watch what you do—not what you say. As a chaperone, your ripple effect can be both negative and positive.

Imagine if we tell students that we should not be using disposable plastic water bottles, but then all the chaperones by plastic cola bottles at the rest stops.  Students quickly understand the hypocrisy of adults. Imagine if we tell students not to waste food but didn’t follow up students who were super wasteful?  Students understand when we don’t care enough to show them how to conserve. If we complain about the long bus ride and wonder loudly why we aren’t taking an airplane like other school groups, students will learn that it’s okay to spew tons of carbon in the air as long as it saves us time.  If the chaperones complain about using the latrine, the hard ground they slept on, or the cold water in the showers, students learn that the privileged shouldn’t suffer. 

We, as chaperones, hope that students continue to connect what they’ve learned on these trips to the decisions they make on a daily basis.  We want this experience to mold them into being global citizens ready to tackle the challenges of the future. Because what future can we have, without these types of leaders?

” I see these trips as a leverage points to increase their understanding of the world and to increase their ability to be Changemakers. “

Here are some ways to keep your overseas trip Eco- friendly:

  1. Link your trips to the United Nations Global Goals. 
    There are so many lesson plans on the World’s Largest Lesson to scaffold that learning.
  2. Make sure that the businesses you are supporting uplift the country. 
    This can take many forms- staying in hotels that are locally owned, shopping in women’s cooperatives, or making your menus based on local ingredients rather than imported ones.
  3. Consider the waste that you might leave in these countries. 
    With my students, I focused quite a bit on food water waste, but it can just as easily be sustainable consumerism.  Involving your tour provider from the beginning is super helpful. When they know that you’ll be requiring students to bring water bottles, they will provide you refillable water stations.  Students can bring plastic water bottles from the recycling bin to tuck any plastic wrappers from snacks they’ve brought from home, wipes, and any plastic waste they find on the ground and create Eco-bricks.  Many countries have eco-brick reception points or you can have students bring them back to school to build.  
  4. If the trip is a service trip, make sure it’s more helpful than harmful. 
    Make sure that the volunteer opportunity that your students are participating in doesn’t take jobs away from the community or waste precious resources.  Make sure that there are immediate and long term benefits to the country. For example, painting a wall beautifully in a school rarely makes any impact on education?
  5. Consider offsetting your flights.
     I use this company, but there are so many to choose from.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding the Big Picture: A Sustainable Field Trip”

  1. Such a wonderful insight! I will share this with my friends, several of whom are retired teachers. Thank you for educating me/us with your experiences and wisdom.

  2. Thanks for this post! Sad that our paths never crossed at ASD. My husband and I were there 2008-2012 and led WWW trips and Habitat for Humanity. Now we teach in Ecuador. Most of our student trips take place within Ecuador rather than traveling to another country, but much of this still applies. I shared your thoughts with our director.

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