When Students, School and the Zoo Converge… Great Things Happen

The students gather in the bus aisle and retrieve their backpacks, but today they are a little more excited than usual. Instead of hearing the school bell ring, they hear the roar of lions and the whistle of a train. This isn’t
an average school day. These students have just entered the Louisville Zoo to participate in its award-winning School at the Zoo (SAZ) program.

The week-long SAZ program has provided more than 10,000 students with hands-on learning in what we call a “living classroom” – the Zoo. Many of these students are amongst the underserved in our region. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums saw so much merit in the program that they awarded our SAZ program a 2013 Significant Achievement Award for outstanding education programming.

Winning an award of this nature is always a wonderful nod to hard work, creative thinking, perseverance and teamwork. But the real Cinderella story with this award is the difference SAZ is making in students’ lives. Wetalked to students and teachers at participating schools and here is a look at SAZ through their eyes.

Cane Run Elementary fourth grader, Areon Nobles, participated this year and was quick to say, “I never knew a sea eagle existed until I went to School at the Zoo. The nest was huge.” He added, “The mothers are bigger than the fathers and usually men are bigger than women in human life. But the mothers are bigger so they can keep the babies

It is exactly this type of conclusion that SAZ strives for. SAZ is a week-long program that focuses on inquiry
based activities encouraging students, just like Areon, to investigate, hypothesize, observe, interpret and question what they see and how it relates to daily life.

Marcelle Gianelloni, the Zoo’s curator of education who spearheaded the SAZ program said, “I find it rewarding to look around a class and see the expressions on the faces of the students. I notice they are engaged and connected
to what is going on. Of course, this is especially true when they are observing an animal up close, whether it is an orangutan or a snake. Zoos are able to provide that real life application to what they are learning and provide the opportunityfor them to experience a sense of wonderment. It makes my day when I see engagement, exploration and
discovery going on with our SAZ students. I know that students are making connections that are fostering feelings of caring that inspire conservation action.”

Darleen Horton, environmental coordinator and resource teacher at the environmental magnet school Cane Run Elementary, has brought students to participate in SAZ for the past five years. Darleen described SAZ as a unique and
amazing program with fourth grade being the perfect time to start. “SAZ covers everything an educator wants to cover but it also goes deeper into the curriculum. Its goal is to help students do better on their science test and align with the Kentucky Core Standands, but the program goes beyond this focus and engages students in real life learning.”
For Cane Run fourth graders, Ahmera Jackson and Lindsay Priddy, learning about animal classifications and adaptations, features that help an animal survive in its environment, helped them understand a variety of species. Ahmera put her learning of adaptations to use in the classroom when creating a frog from a gourd. She knew it needed four feet, a tail and sticky things on the bottom of its feet to help it survive.

Learning is a two-way street with SAZ, and the educators find they learn and see so much through the eyes of the students. For Karen Maynard, SAZ educator, it is amazing to see the difference in the students from Monday to Friday. “Many of them are apprehensive about animals and nature, but throughout the week are eager for more hands-on learning. I sometimes take for granted how much I know and have experienced in my life and forget that these students may have never even touched a snake or seen these exotic animals up close.”

While the close animal encounters create memories, the program also encourages change. When asked if she did anything differently since attending SAZ, Ahmera said she no longer killed spiders because she now knew they too had a place in our ecosystem. Lindsay said she liked the scavenger hunt to identify different species, and talked a
lot about animal classification, which according to her teacher, will be on their test. She has an insightful and
clever description of an invertebrate – “It’s like nature’s M&M–crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside.”

Because SAZ is an interdisciplinary experience, it incorporates everything from science to math to logic to even writing. Each student is given a science notebook to chart their experiences and must complete a daily writing
assignment. Brenda Stokes, environmental coordinator at Portland Elementary Environmental Magnet saw a big difference in her students’ science vocabulary. “Through the daily interactions, we were able to access student misconceptions and build their structures for pursuing knowledge about the world around them.” She added, “The
environmental connections made a big impact because students were connecting with the organisms while learning about environmental issues affecting them.”

When it came to Portland students, Chase Logan, Marquaz Walker and Kyron Coviello, what they learned at SAZ was not left at the Zoo. They took the information and made changes! Chase picked up trash in his backyard so the birds wouldn’t eat it and get sick. Kyron discovered the fun of being outside. He now goes outside a lot more than he did before and was amazed at how many interesting things there were to do. Marquaz shared what he learned with his family. “Since SAZ I have my family recycling at home. We even have a recycling bin.”

But the students at Portland were not the only ones who learned something new. Their teacher, Brenda also found a unique tidbit of information. “I learned the gorilla forest was being destroyed to find minerals that are needed in cell phones, and if we recycle them the minerals can be reused and less of the forest will be destroyed.” But she also did not just leave that information at the Zoo. “Because of this information, Portland began recycling cell phones. On family nights, we offer a CFL lightbulb for anyone that brings in a cell phone to be recycled.”

SAZ would not exist without the support of school administrators and principals. Success of the program has encouraged JCPS to continue its support. Currently, SAZ has a waiting list of schools wanting to participate.
Portland Elementary School Principal Angela Hosch’s vision is to help students come to appreciate their role and responsibility in the grand web of life. “Our responsibility within the web is to recognize, appreciate and act on supporting and sustaining our planet. This experience is not possible through a single trip to the zoo, trips spread through the year, or trips spread across several years.

The impact is due to the immersion during the course of the whole week.” For her, the difference is in the balance of the curriculum. “The program offers the balance of time exploring a few habitats in depth with the time in the classroom to explore the findings and draw conclusions versus exploring the entire zoo to maximize experience only.”

As Darleen Horton from Cane Run explained, “I didn’t get to go to the zoo as a child. So I love to see the excitement of watching students go through SAZ and experience the animals. It’s great to see the ‘aha’ moment when they get the connection that what we do affects other living organisms throughout the world. SAZ is changing the way our students think.”

But for students like Cane Run student Areon Nobles, it was the realization that his opinion and thoughts mattered. “They listened to us,” said Areon. “We were asking questions about the armadillo and our teacher actually went and got the armadillo out for us to see. I couldn’t believe it. I felt happy.”