Buoyed by the positive results of a spring pilot program, National Geographic Channel plans to introduce GeoTrips, a new educational initiative, this fall.
Through the program, NGC and its cable affiliates will encourage middle schools to sponsor geography-based field trips by offering grants of up to $1,000 per participating affiliate to share with selected teachers and their classes.
The network tested the program with Time Warner Cable divisions in Milwaukee and Charlotte, N.C., last month.
In Milwaukee, Time Warner division vice president of public affairs Bev Greenberg's GeoTrips pitch received positive feedback from teachers and principals.
"We found that the field-trip money had been dramatically cut," Greenberg said.
For instance, Audubon Middle School used $300 in GeoTrips grant money to take 30 seventh-grade students to study the habitat, plants and animals in a local park, according to Time Warner Milwaukee division manager of public affairs Stacy Stadler.
Executives at NGC and its distributor, Fox Cable Networks, developed GeoTrips as a way to give kids a new chance to learn.
"By getting them out of the classroom, we give them an opportunity to experience the world in ways they'll remember," said NGC executive vice president of marketing and new media Hilda Chazanovitz.
In Charlotte, a class of 20 seventh-grade students from a specially selected magnet school for leadership in global economics took a trip to the zoo.
"Of the 20, only three had been to a zoo before," Time Warner Charlotte division education services coordinator Roberta Farman said.
NGC backs the grant money with detailed curriculum notes posted on its Web site. In the case of the Charlotte school, Farman said, the teacher prepared additional materials for her class, incorporating subjects beyond geography, such as language arts.
While on the bus ride to the zoo, the students practiced using their new compasses, supplied NGC along with T-shirts and tote bags.
The videographer who tagged along to record the field trip "was very impressed by the kids' level of engagement," Farman said.
Video footage was also collected on the Milwaukee field trip. Two student reporters from a local Time Warner media literacy project, called "Kids Biz," went along for the ride, creating a three-minute video that will be shared with other GeoTrips affiliates, Greenberg said. The video will also be posted on the local Road Runner high-speed Internet service, as well as air on a local educational channel and digital news channel.
Time Warner's Charlotte division also plans to post footage from its recent GeoTrip on the local Road Runner home page, which could help encourage parents to seek out the free Internet access provided at community centers, division vice president of public affairs Sue Breckenridge said.
Over time, NGC hopes to enlist the help of a national sponsor to provide grants to more schools and to increase the visibility of the program, Chazanovitz said. She added that because of the integrity that National Geographic has built over the years as a leader in education, the network would be very careful in choosing sponsors that would have the right fit with the brand.
"It's important for the sponsor to have a commitment to education," NGC senior vice president of marketing Stephanie Fleming said.
At the local level, Fox Cable Networks senior vice president of affiliate marketing Janice Arouh suggested that affiliates pitch local sandwich shops to provide lunches for the students on the field trips.
Affiliates said they would consider working with local sponsors for future projects, as long as they meet the schools' needs.
"We'd work directly with the schools to make sure ad sales sponsorships don't seem too commercialized," Breckenridge said. "But schools are looking for creative ways all over the place to meet their needs."