Teachable Moments

A student gets hands–on learning experience with the assistance of a zoo education professional.

Professional Educators Guide Visitors In Learning

Why do zebras have stripes?

Why do lions hunt in a group?

What’s the difference between reptiles and amphibians?

Every Lincoln Park Zoo encounter can be a launchpad for learning. As visitors observe species of all shapes, sizes and origins, they ask questions to try to piece together the zoo’s world of wildlife.

Happily, visitors aren’t alone in the process. Professional educators guide those looking to learn in the zoo’s living classroom. Free daily activities explain why silverback gorilla Kwan voluntarily presses his fingers against the mesh of his exhibit. (He’s letting a keeper examine them, part of his daily checkup.) Public programs teach little ones why the male Blythe’s hornbill gathers all the meals during breeding season. (The female seals herself in a tree hole to incubate her eggs.)

Now a new series of partnerships is encouraging students to step into a scientist’s shoes—and guide their own learning. See how students are taking the lead with Zoo Explorers and Young Researchers Collaborative.

Last year, over 3,000 buses dropped off students eager to learn about wildlife at Lincoln Park Zoo.

A Field Trip for Today’s Students

Learning tools: Piranha skin. Jaguar fur. A gorilla’s hand cast. Shed skink skin. Fruits and grubs.

Last year, 3,000 buses dropped off students for field trips at Lincoln Park Zoo. In those buses were more than 110,000 kids of all ages, from cities and schools throughout the region. Some came equipped with teacher-created activity sheets; others explored with the aid of ZooTracks, free, self-guided tours designed by the zoo to guide learning.

A portion of these students were guided on their visit by a trained zoo educator. They’re known as Zoo Explorers, and they’re part of a program that uses the latest research to deliver a wildlife experience that’s student-led, memorable and lasting.

“Facilitated field trips used to be more passive. Educators would deliver a narrative of basic facts on animals students were going to see,” says Director of Student and Teacher Programs Leah Melber, Ph.D. “With Zoo Explorers, we’ve transitioned from kids receiving information to them generating their own data. This personal connection helps learners better remember the experience and build greater understanding.”

Students were in charge of making their own discoveries, each tailored to a specific age group and learning level.

With support from Quest Foundation and Bank of America, each Zoo Explorer session centers on a clear theme: Making Observations. Animal Classification. Predator/Prey. Animal Behavior. When the students arrive, they use their sense of touch to gain a hands-on introduction to the subject. Snakeskin, piranha scales and feathers aid identification; metal casts of gorilla hands and feet help students visualize how the great apes gather food and move through the forest.

Armed with data sheets, the students then head out to record their own discoveries. The experiences vary by age group. The youngest learners draw distinguishing features for birds, reptiles and mammals while older students fill out a behavioral checklist, or ethogram, mirroring those used by zoo scientists. The participants are guiding their own learning processes, which prompts a better experience—and better results.

“The kids are always really excited,” says Manager of Student and Teacher Programs Chrissy Graszer. “We make a point to indicate they’re being scientists now, and stepping into that role makes them feel important.”

Having students own the title of "Scientist" provides them with plenty of excitement and motivation to get the job done.

Partnering in the Research Process

What is the difference between a cat at play and a tiger at play?
How do foraging habits differ between squirrels and dwarf mongooses?
Do horses have similar behaviors to Grevy’s zebras?
What types of plants do crickets live in at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo vs. school?

While Zoo Explorers offers a one-time stroll in a scientist’s shoes, the Young Researchers Collaborative features a yearlong immersion in zoo science. Partners from participating schools use zoo encounters to fuel independent student research projects. After two field trips to the zoo, three or four classroom visits by zoo educators and two teacher professional-development workshops, the experience culminates in the annual Science Celebration at Café Brauer, where select students show off their work.

“We wanted a yearlong partnership to build student research skills and let them present what they’ve learned,” says Melber. “With that, we try to align as closely as possible with work being done at the zoo.”

The research experience is sponsored by Polk Bros. Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., UBS and University of Phoenix. Classroom visits introduce general concepts: ecology, data collection, animal behavior. Field trips then give the students the chance to collect raw data comparing zoo residents to animals they encounter in their own backyards. This exposes kids to the practice of research while reminding them that wildlife is all around them.

By searching for answers to the questions above, the young researchers gain an appreciation for research itself. “A lot of students think research is just looking in a book or online,” says Graszer. “Young Researchers Collaborative shows them research is more than that. It’s something they can do; it involves observing, questioning, predicting, sharing results.”

Paper and writing utensils are replaced with iPads for the Young Researchers Collaborative, giving students excellent real-world science experience.

Building on Success

Feedback from students and teachers indicates Zoo Explorers and Young Researchers Collaborative are both channeling teachable moments into lasting learning experiences. But Melber and her educators continue to seek ways to innovate and improve. This fall, funding from Polk Bros. Foundation will upgrade the data-collection process from pencil and paper to iPads. The high-tech tools will engage students—and give them a closer look at research as it’s really done.

“We’re developing basic research skills,” says Melber. “Even if kids choose not to be researchers, they’ll have the scientific literacy to guide them in making decisions as citizens and voters. If kids do pursue a career in science, they’ll have early practice at real skills, which is invaluable.”


By James Seidler • Published August 22, 2014 • Originally published in Spring 2012 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine