Looking Back at a Year of Learning

Conservation Programs Manager Katie Gillespie and Director of Student and Teacher Programs Leah Melber (right) pose with students in Niger.

Conservation Programs Manager Katie Gillespie and Director of Student and Teacher Programs Leah Melber (right) pose with students in Niger.

As our partnership with the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama for the Community of Conservation project comes to a close, we all finally have a moment to catch our breath and look back at what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past year.

The project was filled with highlights, such as traveling to a new country and seeing youth from different countries share a common interest in conserving wildlife. There were challenges too: power outages that derailed communication and cultural differences, such as a Nigerien dinnertime of 9 p.m. versus the 5 p.m. plan of U.S. partners.

Most importantly, it’s exciting to see how successfully the project met its goals. We’re still in the final stages of analyzing student surveys, observations and focus-group data, but some exciting outcomes are already apparent.

The U.S. students started our partnership with just a basic knowledge of Niger, such as the fact it was located in Africa and that French was the primary language. They are finishing the project with detailed knowledge of both the wildlife of the area, including an urban hippo and a free-roaming herd of giraffes, as well as nuances of Nigerien culture.

Giraffes in Niger

Giraffes in Niger

As one Parker student said, “I learned about W National Park and different animals in Niger, like the hippo that lives in the river.” Another added,  “There are several different tribes including Housa, Tuareg and Fulani.” A third, reflecting the project’s social aspect, said, “Kids in Niger know some of the same pop culture icons that we do here, like Justin Bieber.”

Parker students make wildlife observations at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Parker students make wildlife observations at Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Nigerien students started the partnership with a basic understanding of Chicago and the United States, primarily around icons such as the White House and the Chicago Bulls. By the end of the project, they could identify popular Chicago landmarks as well as the types of urban wildlife Chicago students were likely to encounter.

One student commented that they learned Chicago “has many architectural masterpieces, such as the Tribune Tower.” Another shared what they learned about the process of scientific research, specifically that “scientists study the animals at regular intervals by collecting data that will be compiled for analysis.”

Students collect data in Niger.

Students collect data in Niger.

The zoo’s researchers have a long history of working with international colleagues to support conservation efforts. Educators were thrilled to be able to do the same through the generosity of the U.S. Department of State and the American Association of Museums. With internet now in place at both the National Museum of Niger and partner schools, we hope to continue the conversation and look toward virtually connecting the Nigerien students with our award-winning Young Researchers Collaborative program when it kicks off this fall.

Zoo educators are also actively sharing our experience with our professional community. We have presentations planned for the annual meetings of the Association of Midwest Museums this month along with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and International Zoo Educators Association this fall. Wrapping up this wonderful international exchange, it’s safe to say we’ll all continue to learn from it.

Leah Melber

Leah Melber, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo’s director of student and teacher programs.

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