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Woodland Park Zoo Taps Zoo Staff to Bring STEM to Life

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STEM skills are critical no matter the path a student pursues. Woodland Park's ZooCrew program is leveraging all available assets, including zoo employees, to show students the importance of STEM today.
Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

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Denny International Middle School student Caitlin walked to the front of the room and cleared her throat as she glanced over her notes.

“I am the Howlers,” Caitlin began. “I represent an animal rights group that lives in all regions of the U.S. We are trying to save the gray wolf from extinction. I want the gray wolf to be safe and in a home they can keep forever. I am nervous about losing this beautiful and awesome creature.”

Thus began a town hall debate during which middle school students role-played different perspectives in the national conversation on gray wolves. It was a capstone event for ZooCrew, Woodland Park Zoo’s middle school outreach program that uses contemporary conservation issues to inspire the next generation of conservation and community leaders.

Founded in 2011, ZooCrew is part of the zoo’s effort to deepen ecological and science literacy among Washingtonians. Washington STEM supported ZooCrew with a $10,000 Entrepreneur Award, which was leveraged to purchase tablets for student use, facilitate links with community-based organizations like the YMCA to encourage greater engagement with underserved students, and connect the program with classroom teachers to bolster its alignment with school curriculum.

Yet ZooCrew’s unique strength comes from the innovative way it leverages zoo assets, including staff. Established in the late 1880s, Woodland Park Zoo has more than 270 staff across 25+ different departments, ranging from conservation, creative services, animal management, public relations, events, education, and more.

ZooCrew recruited zoo employees in animal enrichment, digital communications, early child education, and conservation research among others, to serve as advisors on the students’ semester-long projects.

Projects ran the gamut. During the winter session that focused on wolves, the animal enrichment team designed a tool to stimulate the animals and create a more active zoo environment. The early childhood education group made a puppet show, while the student conservation research team developed a “myth versus fact” survey. Finally, the digital communications team created a short film about a boy raised by wolves in order to highlight misconceptions about the animal. “You may think wolves are these dangerous creatures that will kill anything they seem to find,” said Jeremy an 8th grader at Pacific Middle School. “But to be honest, that's not completely true.”

The impact of the partnerships between students and zoo employees was bigger than just providing professional mentorship or hands-on learning experiences. By building relationships with zoo staff, students get a sneak peak at a range of professions. They also saw the pervasiveness of STEM skills today—from website design and video editing, to the importance of critical thinking and problem solving.

“No matter what you like or may care about, you can be a leader, and you will need STEM,” says Rob Goehrke, a youth programs specialist with ZooCrew. “These relationships help to underscore the importance of STEM in many careers, replacing the image of a white-coated scientist with that of a veterinarian, zookeeper, dietician, conservation biologist, events planner, photographer, or web designer.”

The partnerships were often equally meaningful for staff, who saw their jobs in a new light after working with the students.

One middle school student partnered with the director of events to support WildLights, Woodland Park Zoo’s annual winter lights festival where hundreds of thousands of LED lights create animals and their habitats in two- and three-dimensional creations decorating zoo pathways. The student was so captivated with the project that she brainstormed 50-pages, front and back, worth of ideas with accompanying facts and explanations. The zoo event staff is currently working to make some of these come to life in next year’s WildLights event.

“One of my goals is getting kids to realize that no matter their interest and talents, they can help animals in their environment by showing people in different careers that are doing just that,” says Goehrke.

While not every community has the zoo’s depth and breadth of resources to pull from, the asset-based approach is replicable anywhere.

“The strength of this program comes from its use of the assets available,” says Goehrke who has an AmeriCorps background. “I don’t see my job as inventing anything new. Rather, it’s about bringing together everything I have access to, to make a great program.”

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