The Chicago educators—Rachel Bergren, Maryanne Kalin-Miller (Francis W. Parker school), Katie Hawkins and Chrissy Graszer—pose with peers from Niger's W National Park
As the zoo’s Manager of Student and Teacher Programs, I oversee student research projects and supporting activities for our exciting Community of Conservation project. A partnership with the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama, this international effort brings together students from Niamey, Niger and Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School to learn about wildlife—and each other.
In January, three zoo educators (including myself) and the seventh-grade science teacher from Chicago’s Francis W. Parker had the opportunity to visit Niger as part of the project! Cultural exchange is what the program is all about, and the visit gave us a key chance to connect directly with schools and students in Niger, share expertise with colleagues at the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama, learn about Nigerien culture and communities, and observe some local wildlife. (The trip—and the entire project—is generously funded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCAA) program.)
Prior to visiting Niger, I tried to envision what school is like for students who are able to attend. Having done a bit of research, I knew these students are the second poorest in the world; the majority of Nigerien people live in rural areas without access to a number of resources. I wanted to see how these challenges affected education, how teachers overcame these challenges and also just the general structure of the school system.
On our first day in Niger, we had the opportunity to stop by the communities of Say and Allambaré. Here we got a glance at a typical school in Niger. With bare stone walls and windows covered with metal shutters, the physical structure was much different than what we’re used to. In discussions with local teachers, we learned some challenges the schools face: no supplies, lack of home support and poor conditions.
A representative school from Allambaré, Niger.
Many schools in the states face similar issues, but the degree in Niger is so much greater. Primary school attendance is low because many students, especially girls, are needed at home to help with chores or the crops. When asked what keeps them motivated to teach in such conditions, the teachers said, “Because we are passionate about educating the children.” This was very impactful to hear.
We also visited the schools that are involved in the partnership, College Mariama and Lycée d’Excellence. Like students at Francis W. Parker, students with these schools are conducting behavioral research on animals found locally and at a local wildlife institution—here, the Museum Boubou Hama.
Students from Lycée d’Excellence observe local wildlife as part of the Community of Conservation partnership.
During our visit we quickly realized these schools are two of the top colleges (the equivalent of high schools here) around. Students must receive high marks on an entrance exam to have a chance at this top-notch education. They spend three years at the school, after which students move on to either local or international universities.
The leadership at both schools boasted about their students’ academic motivation and high achievement. One even stated, “Many of our students go to university in other countries where they’re the ones other students go to for help.” After observing the students collecting behavioral data, sitting in on classroom lessons and conducting a Skype session with students back at Parker, I can see why they’re so proud. The students were very engaged in the activities. Some even chatted with us a bit after the Skype session about science/conservation and their future goals. I’m eager to hear about what they discover in May!
An educator leads the Skype session between Chicago and Niger.
We got a glimpse of informal education as well. The sight of the school bus that brought students to study the animals at W National Park made me feel right at home! To help educate students and the public, this rich wildlife refuge has a room of specimens to view and educators on staff.
We also spent some time with our partners in the project, the education staff at the Museum Boubou Hama, who facilitate activities with the students. At both places I could see the staff was dedicated to educating students about science and conservation.
In the end, despite the differences, I saw that many aspects of their schools and educational system parallel our own. I also realized that education in any country has it struggles. However, it’s the dedication of the students and teachers that help lead today’s youth into being the future leaders of tomorrow.
Chrissy Graszer is Lincoln Park Zoo's Manager of Student and Teacher Programs. She traveled to Niger in January as part of the zoo's Community of Conservation project, a partnership with the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama.