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.

Education: Teenagers Learn Civic Responsibility at Detroit Zoo

Volunteers at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center play a hugely important role in our operations. They interact with visitors, pass on important stories about the animals that live here, share our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and facilitate experiences that engage our guests in creating a better tomorrow for all animals.

Our volunteer corps donates more than 100,000 hours of service every year. We have opportunities for individuals and groups 13 years of age and older to assist us during special events, to greet guests as they arrive at the Zoo and provide directions throughout our 125 acres, and to engage with visitors in areas including the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, the Australian Outback Adventure and the Arctic Ring of Life.

This past spring, we amped up our recruitment efforts for the Volunteen Corps, which resulted in our numbers tripling. This a fantastic opportunity for local teenagers to earn community service hours while gaining leadership experience and building communication skills in a professional work setting. Volunteering not only builds a teen’s resume by adding valuable skills and experience, but it helps develop a sense of civic responsibility. Volunteering at the Zoo also allows these students to spend time in nature while learning about animals and the environment and how we can all be great stewards of this planet. The Volunteens who’ve worked with us are highly engaged and enthusiastic about interacting with guests of all ages – especially children – and sharing all they have learned during their time here.

Fifteen thousand visitors have interacted with our more than 80 Volunteens since June. Many of those participated in a hands-on activity that explored how sound energy travels while sharing an important animal welfare message. Stationed just outside the entrance to the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, teens demonstrated how sound travels and allowed guests to try their hand at making sound waves move by sanding sugar on a taut plastic surface. The teens then skillfully steered the conversation toward the concept that tapping on the glass of the reptile habitats allows sound and vibrations to travel into the habitat space, possibly disturbing if not upsetting the animals that live on the other side.

As the weather cools down, the Zoo Corps is helping us with Zoo Boo, our annual Halloween celebration held on weekends in October. The Spooky Science Laboratory is crawling with trick-or-treaters and our teen volunteers assist them as they explore pumpkin and squash guts, predict how many mosquitos a bat eats in a single night, and determine how neighborhood wildlife can do your pumpkin carving for you.

 

We are also working with our Zoo Corps to tell stories about our mission while building communication skills. A small cohort of teens participated in storytelling training and are sharing the real-life stories of animals that have been rescued by the Detroit Zoological Society as well as tales of wildlife conservation work we are involved in locally and internationally.

Starting in November, our teens will be doing science activities on Sunday evenings during our annual holiday celebration, Wild Lights. Hands-on activities will be sure to delight guests as they enjoy the more than five million lights illuminating buildings, trees and more than 230 animal sculptures.

If you know a teenager who would be interested in joining the Volunteen Zoo Corps, please encourage him or her to apply! We are currently recruiting teens for a mid-November training session. Learn more: https://detroitzoo.org/support/volunteer/

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

Education: Citizen Scientists Help Study Butterflies

Butterflies aren’t just beautiful animals and important pollinators; they are also bio-indicators, which provide valuable information regarding the health of an ecosystem. Like amphibians, the butterfly is affected by even the slightest changes in the environment, signaling to scientists that something is amiss. When habitats are healthy and plentiful with food, water and shelter, bio-indicator populations are stable. When any piece of that puzzle falls away, populations fluctuate quickly and may decline rapidly.

Scientists can’t be everywhere to monitor species’ populations and keep track of changes. They count on people like us to be their eyes and ears in our communities and report this critical information. The Detroit Zoological Society is providing opportunities for our community to become citizen scientists and help the Michigan Butterfly Network collect vital information about our native butterfly species.

On April 6, a citizen science training workshop will be hosted at the Belle Isle Nature Center. The training will cover species identification, how to collect accurate data, how to report data and otherwise prepare attendees to be successful.

After the mandatory training, citizen scientists are asked to visit their census route at least six times throughout the summer field season. Each census route walk will last five minutes as the observer looks for butterflies in their immediate vicinity. Recording data is a very important part of the process; each species will be carefully documented on a form and submitted to the network.

There are many support materials and resources available and the training workshops will prepare participants for a successful season. The pre-requirements include a passion for our natural world, an interest in learning to identify up to 30 species of butterflies, and the ability to visit a census route six times over the course of the summer season.

If you’d like to learn more about the project or sign up to participate in the training workshops, please email education@dzs.org.

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