Education: Bringing Antarctica to Life in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center

As a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve been working on the interpretive plan for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center for the past several years, and the educational value that I received during a recent expedition to Antarctica was immense. All of the decisions that were so intentionally made throughout this multi-year design process are true to the Antarctic experience. What you will see in the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center will be authentic.

The colors we saw surprised me the most. I had expected grays, whites and blues – but the colors we experienced were so much more than just that. Lichens grow there, in oranges, greens and reds. Seeing moss and short little grasses, deep green in color, reminded us of how long it took them to grow in that cold and harsh environment. Kelp is bright red and could be seen floating with the currents near the shore. The icebergs and water are so many different shades of blue. We learned about ice and the visible blue color from all the compacted ice where air bubbles had been squeezed out. We passed many icebergs during our expedition, and I never grew tired of looking at all the crevasses and colors. The landscape was truly incredible.

Renowned biologist and president of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser, was an incredible person to spend time with on this trip. He did formal presentations for our group, but also interacted with us informally, talking about what he noticed on shore. Hearing him discuss the challenges that penguin species on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula are facing emphasized the impact that the changing climate is having on ecosystems around the world. When we battled brash sea ice on the way to the U.S. Palmer Station – which was a little treacherous – it became clear how harsh this environment is for the researchers and scientists who spend ample time in Antarctica. The people we met at the research station – as well as Matthew Porter, our own bird department zookeeper who has been living and working there the last few months – have a true passion for the work they do. As we toured around the station, it was clear that those who are chosen to work there are an incredible and talented group of people. We peeked in the different labs and learned about their work and life on the base. We developed an appreciation for the important work that goes on at Palmer Station. Part of our interpretive plan in the new penguin center is to focus on the research that is going on in the Antarctic region, and being on the base of this station will help us to build our own capacity for conveying our message to Zoo visitors.

Dr. Fraser was able to open our eyes to how far research has come since he started his work more than 40 years ago. New information that is not yet published ensures that we are on the cutting edge of penguin information and conservation. If Dr. Fraser and his team can better understand the threats to penguins in the Polar Ocean Research Group study area, scientists can utilize methods to better mitigate threats to declining penguin species.

As we near completion of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, this Antarctic experience has allowed us to reshape some of our interpretive elements in the building. It helped us to take a step back and look harder and deeper into the opportunities we have to embody what our experience was like, and inspire our visitors to protect fragile ecosystems around the world, especially those in Antarctica.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

2 thoughts on “Education: Bringing Antarctica to Life in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center

  1. The Zoo has previously announced an April opening for the new Polk Penguin facility.

    Are you still on schedule for an April opening?

    It’s already March, and no specific opening date has yet been announced. That makes me think you’re behind schedule.

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