Teachers and Zoos: Working Together to Save Species

July 29, 2014

On the eve of our ninth year offering specialized workshops in conservation science for the cornerstone of every community, the formal classroom teacher, it seems only natural to reflect on the near decade of partnerships that have blossomed through this unique and innovative professional development offering.

Since the program began in 2006, we have worked alongside more than 650 science teachers representing all 50 United States and three countries. From Bayside Middle School in Virginia Beach to Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, from Newburyport High School in Georgetown to Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona, we are partnering with science educators to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders.

Context is Everything

Our workshops focus on the role of zoos in conservation and expose teachers to new and creative ways to present science content in the context of wildlife conservation, an inspiring topic for students of all ages. Studying genetics in the context of the California condor recovery program or disease dynamics in the context of global amphibian decline elevates the importance of science in the minds of both teachers and students.

Our workshops demonstrate the multi-disciplinary nature of conservation science, giving teachers the ability to engage a broader range of students with the innovative tools used to address conservation challenges in the wild and in managed care.

If our program alumni incorporate workshop materials into their classroom curricula following participation, as our data suggest they do, then our program has potentially impacted more than one million science students to date. For many of our local alumni, the workshops have also served as a catalyst for deeper and more meaningful connections to our organization. Many return to our lab each year with enthusiastic science students in tow, eager to apply their textbook knowledge of biology and chemistry to real word scenarios in biodiversity conservation. Others have taken on the role of Master’s student in our Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP), where they use inquiry not only as a tool for integrated learning, but also as a powerful agent for student achievement, public engagement, and ecological stewardship.

Informal Science Centers

Our workshops have also acted as a model for other informal science institutions around the nation. To date, we have hosted science educators from more than a dozen other zoos and museums, including the Denver Zoo, Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland Zoo, Henry Doorly Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and Utah Museum of Natural History. It’s exciting to think that teacher programs similar to ours may soon debut all across the country, elevating the role and importance of informal science centers in enhancing science literacy here in America, as well as for our own mission of saving species worldwide.

Informal learning institutions play a critical role in the lives of citizens for exploring and understanding science (just like teachers do!). From building excitement and interest in discovering the natural world, to offering people access to sensory experiences that they could not otherwise afford, zoos act as a liaison between citizens and biological diversity.

Equally important is the increasing role that zoos are playing in the conservation of species and habitats, both through direct on-the-ground conservation efforts and by inspiring positive conservation action in communities at home and abroad. Connecting people to nature and science while also inspiring them to conserve global biodiversity is a 21st century challenge uniquely fitted to zoos. We plan to tackle this challenge head on, working alongside the cornerstone of every community.

Maggie Reinbold, M.S.
Associate Director of Conservation Education
San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.



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