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Teens use the Observe to Learn app to record the behavior of a male white-cheeked gibbon - just as zoo scientists would.

Teens use the Observe to Learn app to record the behavior of a male white-cheeked gibbon—just as zoo scientists would.

Hurvis Center Spurs New Communities of Learning

One day this past April, educators at Zoologico Santacruz, a zoo located an hour outside Bogota, Colombia, handed iPads to some visiting schoolchildren and asked them to open an app called Observe to Learn.

It was the first time many of the kids had seen a tablet computer, yet they quickly figured out how to use the app. It guided them through the process of using an ethogram—a checklist of common animal behaviors—to observe and collect data on the zoo’s animals.

Little kids latched onto the ethogram sequence already set up in the app. Older students learned another challenging option as well: how to create their own custom ethograms.

The young researchers may not have known it, but they’d just become part of a global community of learning spurred by Lincoln Park Zoo.

Melber traveled to the South American zoo to provide staff training on the high-tech but accessible educational tool.

Education staff at Zoologico Santacruz try the app for themselves, just outside of Bogota, Columbia.

Building a Common Language Across Borders

“The technology was our common language,” says Leah Melber, Ph.D., senior director of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration, which funded the collaboration and developed the app.

Melber traveled to the South American zoo to provide staff training on the high-tech but accessible educational tool. “It was exciting to see everyone so engaged and modify the experience to their expectations and needs,” she says.

Growing a dynamic community of science learning across borders—local to global—epitomizes the bold goals of the Hurvis Center. Launched in February with a $3 million leadership gift from the Hurvis Charitable Foundation, the new endeavor resides within the zoo’s Education Department. Its mission: to develop, test and research informal education concepts and provide novel programming that captivates visitors of all ages at cultural institutions, zoos and aquariums.

“It’s the new R&D wing of our education efforts,” says Melber. “We’ve been provided the resources and support to take risks using the zoo and partner institutions as learning laboratories.”

Her staff hit the ground running. Melber has shared presentations on the center’s Observe to Learn app and other start-up initiatives at the European Zoo Educators Conference in the Netherlands and a science education symposium in California. Education Research Manager Emily Kalnicky, Ph.D., has chatted up social-science researchers at Boston’s Museum of Science. Education Manager Kyle Soller and Education Coordinator Emma Martell piloted the app at the zoo with the sixth to eighth grade student members of a local education program called It’s So Cool to Be Smart.

Nearly 100 local residents also put the ethogram app through its paces during an Observe to Learn Family Day gathering at the zoo in April. “Everyone was very receptive,” says Soller. “We even taught the program to a group having a family reunion."

Leah Melber hopes to push zoo and aquarium professionals to pursue knowledge and expertise outside of their comfort zones.

Leah Melber, Ph.D., senior director of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration, hopes to lead zoos and museums in finding new ways to connect with learners.

Inspiring Future Science Professionals

Uniting Chicago-area high school students with science-based careers is another key Hurvis Center objective. Three new programs offer promising students from diverse backgrounds unique opportunities to achieve those aims.

Career Explorers will give seven 11th and 12th grade students an inside look at the zoo’s day-to-day operations. During two-week immersion experiences this summer, they’re gaining insight into professional pursuits ranging from conservation science to fundraising to event planning.

The center’s Research Apprenticeship Program offers a similar select group of students a more in-depth experience in conservation research. These four 11th and 12th graders are serving four-week apprenticeships in the zoo’s Animal Care Department and Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI). The first provides insight into career paths for scientists and zoo professionals dedicated to animal care and welfare. The second teams students with zoo scientists researching interactions between urban development and natural ecosystems across the Chicago metro area.

These two programs don’t end when summer does. Students will continue to work with Hurvis Center staff throughout the following school year, making connections between school curriculum and zoo work and sharing their expertise with peers.

The Partners in Fieldwork program, set to debut this fall, aligns UWI’s field work with local high schools. Over the course of a school year, teachers and students will help researchers monitor local wildlife using data collected from motion-triggered cameras and other observational methods.

“As youth prepare for college and early adulthood, they are faced with many choices regarding careers, community involvement and even new uses of recreational time,” says Melber. “We hope these experiences help youth see science and the work of cultural institutions as something relevant and important to them now and in the future.”

The Observe to Learn app and other Hurvis Center offerings aim to inspire younger generations to take a career interest in zoology.

The Observe to Learn app and other Hurvis Center offerings aim to inspire younger generations to take a career interest in zoology.

Taking Risks Together

For Melber, that spirit of collaboration and openmindedness provides the guiding philosophy for every Hurvis Center initiative—whether close to home or abroad. “As zoo and museum professionals, we may encounter situations requiring knowledge and expertise outside our comfort zones,” she says. “It’s okay to not know all the answers, though. Let’s learn together.”

 

By Craig Keller • Published July 11, 2014 • Originally published in Summer 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine


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Download on the App Store.

Observe to Learn App
Developed by Hurvis Center educators, this free iPad app lets you step into the shoes of an animal behavior scientist by conducting your own investigation!