A Trip to a Cultural Institution Provides More Than Just Fun

A trip to a zoo, nature center or other cultural institution is often planned as a recreational or primarily social event. The reality is these visits are critical learning experiences for youth and adults alike. School-age children spend considerably more time out of school than they do at school. Between evenings, weekends and breaks, in the United States, school accounts for about 6.7 hours a day for 180 days, or roughly 25% of a child’s time spent awake each year. The opportunities youth have in their out-of-school time can make a significant difference in their future school, career and life trajectories.

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Cultural institutions are favorite places to visit for a variety of reasons: many people feel safe visiting their local and regional institutions, and they find the exhibits and experiences relevant and meaningful. The institutions are rich in learning opportunities and removed from that typical school-day feeling. They are fun, engaging and memorable. Many institutions are free to visit or offer memberships that make frequent visits affordable.

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The Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are top informal learning institutions in the community, combining opportunities to observe animals in naturalistic habitats with stories of individual animals. Many animals are part of critical, global conservation initiatives; others have been rescued from unfortunate circumstances and have inspiring stories about second chances and new beginnings. These stories are shared through signage, in-person by staff and volunteers, and by digital media available to guests. In addition, guests often have the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities that focus on science concepts while engaging with experts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers during their visit. Perhaps most importantly, visitors build their understanding of animals’ adaptations, physical appearances, behaviors and individual personalities through their observations. This information creates an awareness about the natural world and how human and non-human animals share the same spaces and interact.

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Young children, from birth to kindergarten age, are creating their understanding of the world, they’re building their vocabulary and figuring out how things work with an insatiable, natural curiosity. Exposure to places like the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are critical to developing their future skills and interests. The Belle Isle Nature Center has indoor and outdoor play areas designed specifically for young children. Both areas have natural items like tree cross sections, natural building blocks, rocks and seasonal items like acorns and pinecones for visitors to discover. Adults are essential mentors as they encourage youth to manipulate objects, provide correct vocabulary to identify items, and prompt early learners with questions so they can investigate together. These actions explore cause and effect, help draw parallels between what children know and are learning, and aid in the development of scientific thinking skills.

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As a whole, these experiences build visitors’ understanding of the natural world and systems within it. During a visit, guests have opportunities to explore their impact, both direct and indirect, on those systems and how they can make informed decisions that ultimately benefit themselves, wildlife and wild places. Guests who regularly visit informal learning institutions with children are predisposing them to be interested in STEM-related fields and equipping them with the essential skills needed to pursue those careers, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and planning and conducting investigations. So the next time you think: “we should do something fun today, like visit the Detroit Zoo,” know that you’re not only going to enjoy your visit, but, if you bring children, you just may be helping to shape their future.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Build Empathy for Local Wildlife with Remote Cameras

An important aspect of humane education is building students’ empathy for other animals, including wildlife. One method of building empathy for wildlife is providing experiences that allow people to observe the animals firsthand. At the Detroit Zoo, guests have many opportunities to watch exotic wildlife in expansive, naturalistic habitats. However, people’s opportunities to observe local wildlife can be more limited. Deer, raccoons and other animals may share our local environment, but some of them are nocturnal and tend to be inactive when most people are active. Other animals are fearful of humans and try to avoid contact.

To address this challenge, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) educators are adopting a technology commonly used by conservation researchers: remote cameras. Remote cameras allow researchers to record images and videos of wildlife without the need to be physically present to press a button. While researchers use these images to monitor wildlife populations, humane educators can also use them to give students a look at the local wildlife who may be hard to spot. These experiences can help students empathize with their animal neighbors.

City Critters is just one of the programs where DZS educators are using remote cameras. In this program, DZS educators train preservice teachers to lead humane education lessons to elementary school students. The 45-minute lessons include an activity in which the students analyze images from a network of remote cameras in Detroit parks, operated by the University of Michigan’s Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab. By analyzing these images, the students learn about the raccoons, opossums, squirrels, geese and other wildlife who share their local environment. Remote cameras are also incorporated into The Humane Education Horticulture Program. In this program, DZS educators have helped students at Oakland County Children’s Village install remote cameras in a nearby forest and wetland so they can identify the wildlife in the area. Over the past month, the cameras have recorded images of many animals, including rabbits and deer.

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERAAn image of a white-tailed deer recorded near Oakland County Children’s Village

By observing images and videos of local wildlife, students learn more about these animals’ experiences. For example, they may learn that rabbits are most active in the early morning, or that deer often raise their heads when they are feeding. Over time, students may also come to see themselves as members of a more-than-human community. For instance, the students at Children’s Village are now noting other signs of wildlife on their campus, including tracks, scat and vocalizations.

You can use remote cameras to build empathy for local wildlife, too! One option is to participate in Michigan ZoomIN, a public science project in which people can help researchers at the AWE Lab analyze images from their remote camera network. For more information about the project, click here: zooniverse.org/projects/michiganzoomin/michigan-zoomin. Another option is to purchase a remote camera and install it in your backyard. You can find a wide range of cameras for sale online or at your local sporting goods store. If you install a remote camera in your backyard, be sure not to bait it with food or other attractants. Baiting cameras is not necessary, and it can harm the animals.

– Stephen Vrla and Claire Lannoye-Hall are curators of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

DreamNight – A Night to Remember

The Detroit Zoological Society hosted more than 500 guests for DreamNight, a private nighttime event for families that include a child with special needs or chronic illnesses. The goal of this event was to provide an opportunity for families to spend time, all together, in a stress-free environment. This was the first event of its kind held at the Detroit Zoo, and we were delighted with the reception of the event as well as the outcome.

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DreamNight brought families to the Zoo from around Michigan and parts of Canada. Excited and happy faces emerged as guests walked through the front gates. Without the crowds, many were able to make observations of the animals and experience the Zoo, without being overwhelmed. Penguins were a huge favorite with kids and adults alike. Some children needed the quieter buildings to enjoy the animals who live in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, National Amphibian Conservation Center or Arctic Ring of Life.

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We saw looks of pure joy as children, for the first time, watched penguins swimming. Parents showed relief on their faces as they observed their children watching the animals or exploring the hands-on opportunities. Entire families explored activities together  ̶̶  talking and playing through their shared experiences. We were also grateful for an excited group of staff and volunteers, ready and willing to support each family as they explored the Zoo.

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Throughout the event, families enjoyed dinner, courtesy of Service Systems Associates (SSA), our catering partner, who donated a vast majority of the food and labor for the evening. Stations with hands-on activities were spread throughout the Zoo, which invited guests to explore butterfly wings with handheld microscopes or play with sand in front of the camel habitat or weigh out food for an otter’s diet. Face painting, donated by Kaman’s Art Studio, was also available for all who attended. Our Zooper Hero mascots celebrated with us, and were loved by the families in attendance. Many children danced along to the music from a live band and watched a sensory-friendly version of the 4-D movie in the theater.

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We had an amazing time meeting these wonderful families and getting to know them. The Detroit Zoological Society strives every day to ensure that our entire community is welcomed within our organization. We have recently been certified through the The KultureCity® Sensory Inclusive™ program, which helps us to think strategically about how we can prepare guests before they arrive and provide a positive experience while they are here. Staff and volunteers have participated in training to be aware of our guests needs and learn strategies for supporting them during their visits. Sensory-friendly bags, which contain headphones, fidget items and a feeling thermometer, are available to be checked out to use throughout the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We look forward to hosting future events like DreamNight and ensuring that all families can experience the Detroit Zoo.

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

Conservation through Education in the Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon rainforest is home to tens of thousands of species of animals and plants, making it one of the most biodiverse and beautiful places on Earth. The Amazon and Napo rivers curve through the dense jungle, providing vital resources for the people who live there, including the only means of transportation in an area with no roads. Raising a family in a remote village, surrounded by the rainforest and the bounty and perils it holds, is incredibly challenging – ensuring children have access to an education is an almost insurmountable task.

The Peruvian government provides a school building and teachers for each community, but school supplies for the classroom and each student are the responsibility of the families to provide. The financial burden of traveling to a city by boat from the remote communities and purchasing the supplies is too much for families to bear.

This spring marked the 20th year the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has partnered with Conservacion de la Naturaleza Amazonica del Peru, A.C. (CONAPAC), a Peruvian non-profit, to protect and conserve the Amazon rainforest through education. The Adopt-A-School program is an essential piece in this partnership, providing school supplies to children who live in remote areas of the rainforest and annual teacher workshops that incorporate rainforest ecology and conservation into the curriculum. In exchange for the school supplies and teacher support, communities sign an agreement with CONAPAC to live sustainably in the rainforest, using the natural resources in ways that will protect them for generations to come.

For the last three years, the teacher workshops focused on rainforest birds and their important role in a healthy ecological system. Karen Purcell, a Project Leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, works with a talented team of ornithologists and educators to create materials that are relevant to the teachers and students in the Amazon rainforest. She facilitates the workshops personally, working with the teachers to model how to use the materials with students.

After the workshops, the teachers keep in touch with each other and key staff at Cornell, CONAPAC and the DZS through WhatsApp, a free messaging software for mobile devices. The teachers share photos and notes of how they implement the curriculum, encouraging each other and providing a steady stream of documentation on their commitment to preparing the next generation of rainforest advocates and stewards.

You can help support this program and the important work we’re doing in the Amazon rainforest by donating to the Adopt-A-School program. A donation of $425 provides a year’s worth of school supplies for a classroom and a donation of $50 supports an individual student for a year. To donate, visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/. Each spring, the DZS invites volunteers to help with the delivery of school supplies and to assist in community service projects in the rainforest. To express interest in participating or sign-up for the 2021 trip, visit https://detroitzoo.org/about/travel-programs/amazon-travel-program/.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Join us in Supporting Legislation that will Protect Pets

As temperatures continue to rise in Michigan, we are reminded of the danger in leaving dogs in cars. On an 85-degree day, the temperature inside a car can rise to more than 100 degrees in under 10 minutes, even if the sky is cloudy and the windows are cracked. As a result, dogs can suffer heat-related illnesses and may die before help has a chance to arrive.

Unfortunately, Michigan does not currently protect those who directly intervene if they see a dog suffering in a hot car. House Bill 4092 would give immunity from criminal prosecution to those who forcibly enter a vehicle to rescue an animal. Many states have such laws, but we are not yet one of them. We encourage members of the community to contact your state representative and urge them to support this legislation. This bill can not only save lives, but protect those who stand up to help.

The Detroit Zoological Society recently hosted our bi-annual Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo, the nation’s largest off-site animal adoption event, in partnership with the Michigan Humane Society. Our staff shared with attendees the dangers of leaving pets in cars and thankfully, most of them were already aware of this and the importance of calling the police if they witness this occurring. Many wanted to know how else they could help, and we provided postcards and contact information for each of their state representatives, as well as sample messaging to support House Bill 4092. We collected and distributed 165 postcards from this event.

The DZS’s Berman Academy for Humane Education exists to help people help animals. One way we do this is by providing opportunities for community members to take action in ways that have positive, lasting impacts on animals.

You can look up your state representative and their contact information here. We also encourage you to consider writing to your elected officials about other legislation that affects animals – you can find an updated list of Michigan and federal legislation here.

– Dr. Stephen Vrla is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Kindergartners Detail Good “Zoo Manners” for Guests

It is important for young people to know their voice matters – even as young as 5 years old. At this age, they are at an important developmental stage as they develop self-awareness, are reflective of their own emotions, and begin to recognize emotions in others. It’s an important time to build empathy skills and reverence towards all living beings.

The Detroit Zoological Society received a note from the kindergarten teachers at Bemis Elementary in Troy as they were preparing for a trip to the Detroit Zoo. The teachers were wrapping up a unit on persuasive writing with their students and wanted to provide an authentic writing assignment that would combine literacy skills with their upcoming trip, so they asked their students to brainstorm visitor behaviors that can have a positive or negative impact on the environment and the well-being of the animals at the Zoo.

The class compiled a list of behaviors that could negatively impact animals, including tapping on the glass of habitats in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center or the National Amphibian Conservation Center, not properly disposing of recycling and trash, feeding or chasing peafowl, and straying from public paths. Each student chose a topic and wrote a letter, drew a poster or crafted a petition to persuade all visitors to take care of the Zoo.

Once the letters, petitions and posters were complete, the students recorded a short video sharing why they chose their topic and showcasing their final pieces. They brought all of their work with them when they visited the Zoo. Each of their petitions was read, their drawings admired and their delightful phonetic spelling was decoded.

In addition to practicing persuasive writing skills, the students arrived ready to spend the day enjoying the habitats while acting as ambassadors for the Zoo. The teachers’ mentorship was instrumental in this process. They provided a supportive environment that the students could learn and grow in, ultimately empowering the students to take action.

The Detroit Zoological Society celebrates all young people working towards a better future for all living beings. If you know of a young person who is making a positive difference in their community, we encourage you to nominate them for the Detroit Zoological Society Humane Youth Award to recognize their work. Nominations are open through August 1, 2019. Learn more and submit a nomination here.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Experience our Digital Animal Observation Trek

The Detroit Zoo is widely known for its expansive and naturalistic habitats. From the 4-acre Great Apes of Harambee to the 4-acre Arctic Ring of Life, these spaces provide the animals with plenty of room to roam and to demonstrate natural behaviors that enhance their well-being.

It is because of this that the viewing experience for guests is similar to what it’s like when observing animals in the wild. It requires patience and an understanding of our animal welfare philosophy to ensure the individuals in our care have choice and control over how and where they spend time in their habitat. A variety of viewing areas are incorporated into the habitats’ design for guests to have the chance to walk around and observe the animals’ behaviors throughout the entirety of the space.

We also give guests curated suggestions of how to explore the Zoo in different ways through our interactive mobile map system called Detroit Zoo Treks. Guests can choose among several timed treks, a Fitness Trek, one that focuses on our wildlife conservation and animal rescue work, one that highlights our award-winning sustainability initiatives, and the new Animal Observation Trek. This latest trek provides visitors an opportunity to share their observations of animals with Detroit Zoological Society staff through simple surveys that can be completed on a mobile device. The digital trek currently features six animals: otters, lions, giraffes, kangaroos, wolves and eagles. As guests visit each of their habitats, they can access the survey and indicate if the animal is currently in view.

If the animal is visible, guests are asked to share what behaviors they observe the animal engaged in. After submitting their observations, information on how to distinguish between individual animals is shared through the system. If an animal is not viewable, guests are then prompted to look for signs of where the animal may have been previously spending time in the space. When the survey is submitted, a tip on where the animals prefer to spend their time in the habitat is shared to help guests observe them on their next visit. All of the survey results are recorded and shared with DZS staff, which is added to their own research and observations about where and how the animals are choosing to spend their time.

The Detroit Zoo Treks are based on a map of the Zoo and include important locations such as rides and attractions, concessions, restrooms and other guest amenities. To participate in the Animal Observation Trek on your next trip to the Zoo, visit www.dzoo.org/trek and select your digital adventure.