Docent Training At The Denver Zoo
An integrated, interactive training method designed to
prepare docents for our changing zoo.
Vickie Balance, Joy Wilson
Denver Zoo, Denver, CO
Change is coming to the Denver Zoo! The “Millennium Construction Project” will completely revitalize the zoo with new multispecies themed exhibits where animals are no longer grouped taxonomically. These new exhibits present new opportunities for docents to educate the public. In addition to the physical changes coming to the zoo, our education staff has increased and there is an expanding focus on a wide variety of public education programs. For 30 years, docents have done school tours and ASK-ME interpretive stations but they can now participate in a variety of new tours for kids and adults, specialized programs like Young Scientists, WIN-WIN, Summer Safari and Bunk with the Beasts, as well as live animal interpretation and special events.
Our docents need to be generalists with a wide range of knowledge and skills to assist in activities throughout the entire zoo. The final impetus for changing the docent training was a need to focus more on the animal species we have in our collection providing specific information about our animals and their management.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, a planning committee composed of staff and volunteers worked together to develop objectives, design a training schedule to meet those objectives and develop a curriculum strong in scope and sequence. In the fall of 2001 a completely redesigned docent training program was launched at the Denver Zoo.
This paper will discuss the objectives of the docent training program, the docent training model we designed and the results of our new training methods.
OBJECTIVES: The new docent training program is designed with the following four objectives for all docent graduates:
- Know and understand the characteristics of animals and plants, cycles of life and how all living things interact with each other and their environment
- Know and understand the Denver Zoo animal collection, organization and management
- Understand and be able to use interpretive techniques to present animal information and concepts to engage diverse audiences
- Gain the proficiency, confidence and comfort to fulfill the role of an active docent
All Denver Zoo volunteers complete an orientation class called “ZooU 101.” This class provides basic information about the volunteer organization and the zoo, describes the programs and activities volunteers can be involved in and explains the requirements for both service and docent volunteers. The ZooU orientation class prepares all volunteers to participate in service activities at the zoo. Volunteers who choose to become docents must complete additional training before they can participate in educational activities.
The attached Scope & Sequence Chart describes the overall organization of the docent training course. Five “zones” are defined by the way animals are exhibited in the zoo.
The scope of instruction within each zone includes information in each of the five concept areas: ecosystems, classification, adaptations, relationships and conservation taught in an integrated format. In addition, a curriculum strand emphasizing interpretive techniques runs through each zone. Knowledge builds sequentially in each concept area as the trainee progresses through the five zones during the 17-week course.
The new trainees are learning basically the same information as previous docent classes but in an integrated format with a greater emphasis on interpretive skills and a greater focus on the animal species exhibited at the Denver Zoo.
DOCENT TRAINING MODEL
The new docent training model has three equally important parts including classroom instruction, on-grounds activities and mentored interpretive activities. All classes are taught by education staff members. A docent “day leader” is present for each class session to assist staff with set up, biofact display, classroom activities, and to answer questions related to the volunteer program. Docents also grade the take-home assignments and monitor the trainees’ progress through the mentored activity requirements.
CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION: The foundation of the new docent training model is classroom instruction, which includes the written text, lectures, interpretive games and activities, animal fact sheets for the Denver Zoo animals and take home assignments.
The text for the entire course was written by education staff members. Lectures are given and classes conducted by education staff members. Information on the plants and landscaping in each zone was written by the horticulture staff and included in the text.
The animal fact sheets (developed in a separate project) were researched and written by volunteers and edited by volunteers, education staff, keepers and curators. Information on the animal fact sheets correlates with the six curriculum strands taught in docent training.
Classroom sessions also include biofacts representative of the animals discussed in each zone plus interactive games and activities designed to reinforce lecture material and interpretive techniques. Instead of quizzes or exams in class, we elected to develop take-home assignments. These take-home assignments cover material from the text and lectures, the animal fact sheets and also information from keeper talks and zoo tours. The take-home assignment format also includes questions, which require the trainees to apply what they learn in class to realistic situations out in the zoo, and encourages creativity and independent problem solving.
ON-GROUNDS ACTIVITIES: The second element of training includes on-grounds activities such as zoo tours, keeper talks, behind-the-scenes tours and activities, biofact boxes and practice interpretive sessions.
During each class session trainees spend some time out in the zoo touring the exhibits and animals in each zone. The guided tours for each zone provide specific information on the design and interpretive focus in each exhibit. Training is enhanced by behind-the-scenes tours, which include information on exhibit details, special opportunities to get close to the animals and keeper talks to provide specific information on the Denver Zoo animals and their management. In each zone, trainees also practice various interpretive techniques and skills they could use on tours or ASK-ME’s. Over 30% of the total training time is spent in activities outside the classroom.
MENTORED INTERPRETIVE ACTIVITIES: The third element of our training model requires trainees to complete several Guided Tours and ASK-ME’s under the guidance of experienced docent mentors. These mentored activities begin after Zone 1 classes are completed rather than waiting until the trainees have completed the entire 17 week course. Trainees are able to immediately begin applying knowledge gained in class to practical situations and interpretive opportunities out in the zoo. The trainees are able to spend time around the animals and educate the public while still completing the training program. This change makes classes more meaningful and the training more fun.
Experienced docents utilize their knowledge, expertise and skill to provide “on-the-job” mentoring for the trainees for these interpretive activities. The trainees bring new ideas, interpretive techniques and enthusiasm to each activity, which is an additional benefit for the mentors.
Once the trainees complete the requirements for each zone including all take-home assignments and required mentored interpretive activities, they are allowed to work at ASK-ME interpretive stations within that zone on their own. Trainees are able to begin accumulating volunteer hours in both service and education activities while still completing docent training.
SUMMARY: The objectives of the new docent training program are reached in several major ways all of which are departures from past training practices.
- The class instruction has been reorganized around five zones related to the way animals are exhibited in the zoo rather than the usual taxonomic approach.
- The curriculum is designed to include five major themes – ecosystems, classification, adaptations, relationships and conservation pulled together by a sixth curriculum strand focused on interpretation skills. Knowledge in each content area is presented in an integrated format within each zone and continues to build throughout the entire training course.
- The course has been organized into 17 weeks of classes with breaks between the five zones. The breaks allow trainees time to complete the required mentored tours and ASK-ME’s. Once take-home assignments and required mentored activities have been completed for each zone, the trainees are allowed and encouraged to begin interpreting animals in that zone.
- The mentoring program allows trainees to work one-on-one with experienced docents when completing required interpretive ASK-ME stations and guided tours around the zoo.
- The training program is flexible enough to accommodate future changes in all areas of the zoo.
- Feedback from trainees, staff and docent mentors is used to continuously improve elements of the docent training course.
RESULTS: Two classes of new docents have graduated from the redesigned docent training program and are now active in education and interpretive programs at the zoo. A third class begins in September. Extensive evaluations and feedback from the trainees have been carefully analyzed in order to continue to refine the docent training program. The docents who have been trained under this new program are achieving the objectives we established for docent training displaying proficiency and confidence in their volunteer work for the Denver Zoo!