You might expect a field trip to the New England Aquarium to be planned for elementary school kids. Ahhhh, the wonder of those fish tanks delighting little boys and girls. Ms. Meghan Roach and Mr. Patrick McKerr, AP Psychology instructors, would enlighten us to the value of high school students experiencing Naturalistic Observation, a facet of their psychology study, at the Aquarium. The Aquarium provides the perfect setting for that opportunity. Naturalistic Observation is defined as “observing and recording behavior in naturally occurring situations without trying to manipulate and control the situation.” What did students observe and ponder? Operant Conditioning. And what is Operant Conditioning? Something we probably know in our own daily experiences but we don’t know the name for it. Operant Conditioning is a “type of learning in which behavior is strengthened if followed by a reinforcer or diminished if followed by a punisher.”
The field trip began with a ride on the Red Line and a walk to the Aquarium. On arrival, students were directed to visit the Seals/ Sea Lions and Penguin pools. There students were to view and record the Operant Conditioning they observed, observe and explain how reinforcement schedules affected behavior, observe and note strange behaviors in animals that appeared unwell, analyze their data to draw conclusions about the behaviors they observed. The field trip was a busy one. Ms. Roach was delighted that the field trip enabled students to have a hands-on opportunity to assess learned behavior. Senior Erica MacSweeney was enthusiastic for the “real life application” she observed.”It was interesting watching the sea lions. We saw in action what we are learning in class.” Ms. Roach was further excited that the AP classes “had the opportunity to interact with sting rays and some smaller sharks”, certainly a rare experience for her students but a valuable one. “Psychologists often observe behaviors of animals in order to understand human behavior so this trip had numerous applications to our Psychology courses.” Mr. McKerr concurred and related another important part of the success of any field trip. He shared, “My students had fun! They learned and enjoyed the day.” It was a fish story worth telling!