Studying Science at the Zoo

Fifth graders construct oyster mats for the Indian River Lagoon Oyster Restoration Project as part of activities in Zoo School at Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida.

Fifth graders construct oyster mats for the Indian River Lagoon Oyster Restoration Project as part of activities in Zoo School at Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida.

Schools around the country are partnering with their local zoos to establish “zoo schools,” or classrooms at the zoo that enable teachers to incorporate zoo resources into their lessons. At Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, for example, Zoo School “immerses students in hands-on discovery and interactive learning through both animal encounters and environmental programming,” says Zoo School Coordinator Dawn Hurley. “We’ve lost our appreciation for nature, its value to our quality of life, and the need to foster an informed sense of stewardship, especially in this age of ever-increasing technology. With Zoo School, the walls of the traditional classroom have been expanded to offer those opportunities in a safe and structured environment.”

In 1996, fifth graders from Melbourne’s Sherwood Elementary School began coming to Brevard Zoo for an “integrated, thematic approach to science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts,” says Hurley. Sherwood teachers and other educators from Brevard Public Schools partnered with the zoo’s education staff to develop an interdisciplinary, science-based “Zooriculum” that supports state standards and Common Core State Standards, she explains.

In 2000, Brevard Zoo received a $500,000 grant from the Eckerd Family Foundation to build three permanent classrooms on-site: a cave, a tree house, and a house that resembles the homes of the state’s original settlers. The classrooms “are on zoo property, but off the zoo path,” so visitors are unlikely to drop in and distract students from learning, Hurley points out.

Since then, fifth graders from two other Brevard County schools—Cambridge Elementary and Dr. W.J. Creel Elementary—have joined the program, and each school spends six weeks at Zoo School. The schools are on-site at separate times, and “we schedule them all before spring break and [Florida State Assessment] testing so that all can benefit from what they’ve learned at the zoo,” says Hurley.

Three Zoo School Instructors work with the classroom teachers to teach thematic lessons covering topics like general animal care, habitats, adaptations and behavior, and Florida fossil history. “An extensive conservation program…involves students in activities like oyster reef restoration, mangrove planting and fostering, and sea turtle education. Students also learn from the zoo’s animal keeper staff, who regularly [discuss]…specific animal needs, diets, and behaviors and inform students about their individual career paths,” Hurley relates. “The goal is to encourage students to develop an interest in science while cultivating a stronger sense of community involvement and environmental stewardship.”

Teachers have remarked that “attendance spikes during Zoo School, reinforcing student interest in the program and subsequent experiential learning in a new environment,” and students have said it was “the best time in their life…ever,” she reports.

Unique Course Offerings

Located at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, North Carolina, Asheboro High School (AHS) Zoo School gives students “a unique opportunity because we’re able to offer classes here like zoology, agricultural science, and forensics. These classes are only offered at Zoo School,” not at AHS’s main campus, says science teacher Brooke Davis, the program’s lead teacher. “I can teach about primates and ecosystems because the zoo is set up as a teaching resource,…[making it easy] to incorporate environmental science and ecology” in lessons, she maintains.

Students accepted into this science-based program take their science, math, social studies, agriculture, and for some, English classes, at the zoo; some students take one or two classes on the main campus, then finish the school day at the zoo. Though Zoo School can accommodate as many as 150 students, “our school building is a modular unit with a small but cozy, family-like atmosphere that students enjoy,” Davis explains.

“The zoo gave us a little piece of land to rent at a low cost,” she relates. “We have an outdoor classroom area and access to a lake” and a community garden. Students can work with the zoo’s horticulture staff in greenhouses. “The horticulture class is helping the zoo grow its annuals. They get to see the horticulture industry in action,” she observes.

Students “do a lot of project-based learning and regularly make presentations to the community, zoo staff, and to parents on Parent Night,” as well as to notables like the state’s governor, says Davis. Class sizes are smaller than those on the main campus—20 to 25 students—which makes it easier for “hands-on, project-based learning” to occur, she points out.

In the zoology class, for example, “students do most of the teaching. They do projects and present their findings,” Davis notes. On Amphibian Awareness Day, “students are in charge of activities that day. They meet with zookeepers in advance to plan the day.” In addition, “we have a wildlife rehabilitation center here. Students can eventually be certified in wildlife rehabilitation,” she reports.

In the forensics class, “we create a mini-murder mystery for students to solve,” she relates. Students observe the behaviors of zoo visitors at various locations “and use that as an example of witness statements,” she explains. The class “incorporates something else besides animals [because] we want everybody to be included. We don’t have a sole purpose of training zookeepers; we cover all kinds of careers.”

Because Zoo School students must traverse the zoo grounds daily and interact with visitors, students accepted into the program “have to be willing to think outside the box, be comfortable with project-based learning and have the ability to work independently and in groups. They have to be mature enough to walk around the zoo by themselves and explain their projects to visitors. They need to be able to handle the freedom they have without teachers having to hold their hands,” Davis emphasizes. 

Though Zoo School courses are rigorous, “we don’t just choose students for the program based on grades; we look at discipline and attendance as well. They have to be reliable and trustworthy,” she maintains. “The zoo expects the kids to be actively working on projects, not just strolling around.”

Zoo School students welcome and benefit from these opportunities. “Our kids really want to be involved…Kids you’d never think would want to be in the public eye” have blossomed and thrived in the program, Davis observes. “Sometimes a traditional classroom is not enough for kids. They want to be in a different environment.”

A Zoo Magnet Program

For more than 25 years, Richmond Heights Middle School in Miami, Florida, has offered its Science Zoo Magnet Program at Zoo Miami. “We are a Title I neighborhood school that offers a magnet program, and the program has given us a chance to increase student enrollment from students outside of our boundary,” says Zoology Magnet Lead Teacher Tamara Monroe. “We focus on animal conservation efforts and learning about exotic animals and zoo careers.”

Sixth graders study animal classification, taxonomy, habitats, and behavior and create ethograms, quantitative descriptions of an animal’s normal behavior. “They develop a general knowledge of different animals and learn to differentiate among animals within a species,” says Monroe. Seventh graders focus on amphibians and reptiles, marine mammals, animal conservation, and laws protecting animals, while eighth graders concentrate on primates, birds, and animals’ anatomy and physiology.

On their daily zoo visits, students “do research and talk with experts in the field of animal science about their conservation projects and share personal experiences and stories,” Monroe relates. “It’s bringing their books to life…Students can learn about science, then go outside and really learn and explore science.”

In addition to their studies at Zoo Miami, students take “expeditions” to venues such as Miami’s Monkey Jungle wildlife park, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center in Key Biscayne, and Everglades National Park—or even as far away as the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “We wanted students to see how the exhibits and animals there compared with [those at] Zoo Miami, and compare the Washington climate with Miami’s, which determines why some animals [can’t be housed at some locations], as well as the design layout of other zoos,” Monroe explains.

The program expands students’ horizons. “Sixth graders all start out saying they want to be veterinarians…[After being in the program,] they have a broader interest in science careers, [not just limited to] veterinarian and zookeeper. It gives them a lot of options,” she observes. In addition, students develop “a love and compassion for animals.”

They also benefit academically. “Students tend to do better in English language arts and math because the teachers are able to integrate the zoo magnet curriculum into other subjects…They can work with topics that students are already interested in, and still teach their content,” Monroe contends.

After leaving Richmond Heights, “students have told us that in high school, they tend to do extremely well in biology because they had three years of it in middle school. They tend to excel in science [in general] in high school,” she reports. ●

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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