Concerns about support for science education in the nation’s classrooms are legitimate. But to those of us who attended the zoo’s spirited 13th annual Science Celebration today, it’s also clear that collaborative partnerships among science-based institutions, schools, and philanthropic benefactors can launch kids on lifelong journeys fueled by a love for science.
Hosted by the Women’s Board of Lincoln Park Zoo along with the zoo’s Hurvis Center for Learning, this event celebrates our Young Researchers Collaborative (YRC) program, generously sponsored by Dover Foundation and supported by program partners Chauncey and Marion D. McCormick Family Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation and Siragusa Family Foundation. YRC supports classroom teachers in guiding students through the development of original research projects. For many of these middle-school students, this is their first opportunity to conduct their own self-directed scientific research.
More than 200 sixth- to eighth-grade students from 11 Chicago schools, joined by their teachers, filled up the Great Hall at Café Brauer this morning with a vibrant pastiche of colorful, data-packed posterboards. Sporting titles like “Animal Visibility in Deciduous and Coniferous Trees” and “The Ultimate Battle of Rock Pigeon vs. Harbor Seal,” the displays showcased ecological and animal-behavioral research projects completed at the zoo, schoolyards and local community green spaces as part of the YRC program.
“Our monitoring data showed that seals are 35.5 percent more active than pigeons,” said one young presenter, whose team compared activity levels between the zoo’s harbor seals and rock pigeons in their neighborhood. Another team studying butterfly populations at the zoo’s Nature Boardwalk and in their community noted how these cold-blooded insect pollinators migrated in fall when less flowers bloomed and temperatures dropped. “They can’t fly as well when it’s cold or live here during winter,” noted one member of the team.
These students brimmed with pride while sharing their findings with zoo staff. It’s a big stage for them and their teachers. Being asked about their efforts by our educators and scientists—who also provide guidance during their school-year-long projects—clearly resonates strongly with them. But it’s their growth and poise that impresses us.
“We all enjoy watching these students’ confidence levels soar while developing the same science skills used by our researchers,” says Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt, the zoo’s Manager of Student and Teacher Programs. “They also become more aware of urban wildlife and habitats they may not have noticed before.”
YRC students have opportunities to interact with zoo scientists during the program. The guest speaker at today’s Science Celebration—Wildlife Disease Ecologist Mary Beth Manjerovic, Ph.D.—talked about her work with the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute and Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology. That research includes ongoing investigations into how frog health in the Chicagoland area is tied to stress levels and the presence of the deadly chytrid fungus. A challenging topic to be sure. Yet this audience of young researchers was rapt as Mary Beth—representing an ideal toward which they’ve taken the first step—shared how the zoo inspires communities to create environments where wildlife will thrive in our urbanizing world.
That kindled passion for science is a reassuring sight. But it’s up to everyone to make sure the flame stays lit.