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.

Education: Preserving the Rainforest, One Child at a Time

We’re off to Peru for the 24th year of Adopt-A-School, a program that empowers the citizens of the Amazon rainforest to conserve and protect this globally vital ecosystem.

For this journey, I am joined by fellow Detroit Zoological Society Education Specialist Ben Connor Barrie and 20 volunteers from the U.S., Canada, and as far as Australia. We will be making deliveries of school supplies to communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers.

An average day begins with us packing the four “rapidos”, or fast boats, with school supplies. The volunteer team splits up into small groups and each heads out in a different direction to deliver the supplies. The children often come running to the riverbanks to greet us while adults play traditional Amazonian music on drums and flutes. Once the school supplies are moved into the schools, we begin the ceremonies with speeches, dances and more music.

During one of these deliveries, I was lucky to return to a community that is very special to me. Pucallpa is home to many students I’ve become attached to, as it was the first location I traveled to on a service project three years ago. During my last visit to Pucallpa, I had some down time after program evaluations and took up with a few elementary-aged boys who were playing with their balsa wood airplanes. We zoomed around making plane noises through the school and into the schoolyards. One young boy remembered this and wanted me to do it again. He disappeared for a few moments before returning with one of his balsa wood airplanes. He handed it to me and said it was a gift for me. This was by far one of the most special gifts I have ever received from anyone, as it was truly given from the heart.

The global importance of this region cannot be stated enough. It is home to a massive variety of life and produces much of the world’s oxygen. The people who call this region of the world home are crucial partners in conserving the Amazon rainforest. This international collaboration is preserving the rainforest, one child at a time.

For more information on Adopt-A-School donations and volunteer opportunities, please visit http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school.

– Adam Dewey is an education specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Greenprint: Back-to-School Sustainably

Beth Wallace is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Back-to-school time can be exciting but also stressful when you’re staring down the lists of needed school supplies. According to the 2014 Google report card, back-to-school is now the second-largest retail event of the year. When making our purchases, several factors can come into play, like the latest trends or cost-saving, but now is the time to instill in our children – even college students – that sustainability should always play a key part in consumer decision-making.

  • First and foremost, take stock in what you have from the previous school year and try to reuse supplies as much as possible. The most important part of this action is to communicate with your kids about why it is important to reuse as much as possible. It not only saves your family money, but you’re helping consume less, which helps to protect the environment. Also consider donating any unwanted, lightly used school gear and/or winter wear to a local charity or school that accepts materials for the upcoming school year.
  • For any purchases you need to make, always consider the environmentally responsible goods first. Look for binders made from recycled plastic and notebooks made from recycled or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) paper. Below are key symbols to keep in mind:

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  • Pack a sustainable lunch that focuses on reusable options. Check out the Detroit Zoological Society’s ZooperHero waste-free lunch guide.
  • If your home is not along the school bus route, or public transportation is not an option, consider setting up a car pool with other classroom parents or even a bike route.
  • Encourage your school to take up composting or to create a certified habitat. The National Wildlife Federation has a great certification program that also provides how-to-guides.

Please share your sustainable back-to-school photos in social media and tag @detroitzoo on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

– Beth Wallace