Young Scientists : An Authentic Science Experience for Middle School Students
Denver Zoo, Denver CO
The Denver Zoo’s Young Scientists Program introduces nearly 1200 middle school students annually to the field of ethology and the science behind animal exhibit design. After receiving classroom instruction, observing live animals at the Denver Zoo and completing independent research, students synthesize the information to design ideal animal enclosures and scientific posters. After completion, students present their final projects to their peers and family in a science-fair format. This paper will review the inception of the program, and summarize its current components.
As the Denver Zoo approached the new millennium, the Education Department became increasingly aware of the need to meet Colorado’s state science content standards. Therefore, in 2001, with support from several grants, a team was assembled to create and pilot the Young Scientists Program. Through this program (and many others) the Denver Zoo’s Education Department reaches out to the community and represents the Denver Zoo as an educational force with expertise and opportunity available to both students and teachers.
The Young Scientists Program provides students with an authentic science experience, something far too uncommon within the constraints of a typical classroom. To attract administrators throughout the Denver metro area, Young Scientists was designed to align with both state and national science standards for middle school students. Specifically, the program guides students through Standard One, use of the scientific method. To attract teachers and students, the program tapped into their love of animals and the opportunity to learn about ethology, a field of science absent in most current curriculums.
In September of 2003 the program became fee-based at a cost of $35.00 per student. Scholarships are currently available to qualifying schools through a generous contribution from Bank One as well as continuing support from the Denver Zoo’s Red Apple Fund for Life Long Learning.
The Young Scientists Program provides every participating school with the following curriculum items to support and guide their experience:
Teacher Manuals: Teachers are provided with Young Scientists Manuals that chronologically guide them
through the logistics of the program. The manuals include an overview of all lessons taught by Zoo Staff (see below) and comprehensive lesson plans for additional activities teachers lead students through.
Student Guidebooks: Every student is given a guidebook they use to record their entire Young Scientists experience. It is designed as a gradable item, allowing teachers to hold students responsible for individual work even though the enclosure models and poster presentations are group projects.
Traveling Library: Every school is loaned a comprehensive library of animal related books for the duration of the program. These resources, along with a list of recommended web sites, provide students access to high quality, scientific information.
All components of this unique program evolved through the combined efforts of education staff and Denver Zoo docents. Today, the knowledge students and teachers gain through this program is a direct result of this collaboration. Each of the following components relies upon the communication and collaboration of a team of over 40 trained docents and two full time staff members.
Once a school registers for Young Scientists, teachers are invited to participate in a full day of program specific training. During the workshop, teachers learn about the comprehensive nature of the program and gain an understanding of how the knowledge obtained will be synthesized in their students’ final projects. In addition, direct instruction by Zoo educators and specialized docent directed tours lead the teachers to develop a level of respect and trust in the professional expertise their school will experience.
Classroom Visit One (Conducted by Zoo Staff at the school)
This lesson introduces students to the field of ethology (animal behavior studies) and the Young Scientists Program. Zoo educators, accompanied by docents introduce students to several ways animals at the Denver Zoo are affected by their keepers’ informal observations. Docents present live animals in an effort to demonstrate how informal observations are used to assess the comfort and health of the animal they are presenting.
Ultimately, the greater purpose and goal (Poster Presentation and Enclosure Model) of Young Scientists is revealed.
Classroom Visit Two (Conducted by Zoo Staff at the school)
This lesson begins by reinforcing students’ understanding of specific behaviors, and reviewing the use of ethograms. Next, instructors introduce the two methods of data collection students will use to conduct their research at the Zoo. Finally, using video clips of animals, students practice collecting data in the classroom.
Classroom Visit Three (Conducted by Zoo Staff, at the schools)
Students work in research teams to observe live Madagascar hissing cockroaches. A Denver Zoo educator and docent work together to administer this unique lesson and further challenge the students’ skills in data collection. In addition to reviewing animal habitats, students are introduced to the need for quality animal identification techniques.
Zoo Visit One (A 3 hour visit led by Zoo Docents)
Working in groups of 5 to 10, and under the direct guidance of trained docents, students create ethograms, begin
taking data on their assigned study species, and tour the Zoo focusing on animal behaviors and specific enclosure requirements.
Zoo Visit Two
Again, under the leadership docents, students collect the bulk of their data during this visit. In addition they meet a Denver Zoo animal keeper and tour the rest of the zoo.
Weeks Three And Four
Classroom Visit Four (Conducted by Zoo Staff at the schools)
Students learn about the specific elements to consider in exhibit design. A docent or staff member presents a final animal demonstration and encourages students to review the consideration mentioned above.
Classroom Lesson Five (Conducted by teachers at their schools)
This lesson guides students to interpret the data collected at the zoo in bar graphs, written summaries and percentiles.
Classroom Lesson Six (Conducted by teachers at their schools)
This lesson walks students through the process of creating a Scientific Poster. All components of the scientific method are reviewed and presented. The poster culminates with a discussion section that demonstrates both critical thinking and a synthesis of information.
Classroom Lesson Seven (Conducted by teachers at their schools)
Students build 3-D models that illustrate the suggestions made in their poster presentation. An interpretive sign is designed to accompany each model, thereby further incorporating language arts and research skills.
Presentation (Supervised by teacher, optional attendance by Young Scientists Staff and Zoo docents)
Students present their findings orally in a science fair format. A rubric, provided in the Teacher Manual is used to score presentations.
The Final Event
In May of 2004, the Denver Zoo hosted the first annual “Best of Young Scientists” gala. The highest scoring groups from each participating school were invited to present their posters and exhibit models. Denver Zoo zookeepers and docents, students and their families, school personnel, the media, city, county and government
officials attended, bringing the total attendance to over 200 people. The school of the winning science project was awarded $500.
We are exceptionally proud of this program and embrace the opportunity to share the model and our curriculum with other organizations. It exemplifies the kind of excellent education a zoological institution is capable when it utilizes the passion and skill of so many talented individuals. If you would like further information about the Young Scientists Program, please contact Susan Schmelzer at 303-376-4885, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.