Wildlife Discovery Program At The Houston Zoo
Houston Independent School District
Houston Zoo, Houston, TX
The Houston Independent School District (HISD) is the fifth largest school district in the nation serving some 215,000 children from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. In order to provide truly unique environmental education programs for its students, the District operates three Outdoor Education Centers: Cullen and Olympia on Lake Livingston in Trinity, Texas, for fifth grade students, and the Wildlife Discovery (WDP) at the Houston Zoological Gardens for third grade students. The centers are considered Magnet programs even though they serve all students in the District. Magnet Programs were originally developed in an effort to create more ethnically diverse schools in Houston1. Students attending the Outdoor Education Centers are provided out-of-the-classroom, hands-on learning experiences with children from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds from across Houston2.
The Wildlife Discovery Program is funded as a separate HISD campus. The District provides the staff, supplies, and instructional materials for students and teachers and a web-site with follow-up educational activities accessible to all schools. The Houston Zoo provides, free of charge, the office space which houses the WDP staff, its maintenance, all utilities, and the Zoo facilities as an educational laboratory.
The Zoo docents, who make presentations to the participating students, are Houston Zoo volunteers trained and coordinated through the Zoo’s education section. The Houston Zoo also provides a garden location we call Kidscape, located in the Children’s Zoo, for hands-on native habitat lessons. Kidscape is a great hands-on addition to our program. It provides children a fun opportunity to do gardening chores such as making compost, planting, watering, weeding and propagating plants. The exhibit is also a certified Texas Wildscape Demonstration Garden used by the Zoo to display the value and beauty of native plants to all of the visitors attending the Houston Zoo.
The Wildlife Discovery Program, in operation since 1982, is a cooperative venture between the Houston Independent School District and the Education Section of the Houston Zoological Gardens. The program, designed to utilize the entire Zoo facility as an outdoor classroom, uses the Zoo’s exhibit areas to partially fulfill the state and school district’s third-grade curriculum requirements as they relate to math, science and social studies.
Participating schools from throughout the district send their third grade classes to the Zoo for two consecutive days of hands-on, sensory-based activities. Each two-day session averages 90-100 students. More than 5,600 students from approximately sixty schools participate in the program every year. The schools are on a rotating schedule so that each school participates in the program once every three years because there are more than 17,000 third graders in HISD.
Students participate in lessons designed to help them understand the different groups of animals, why many are endangered, and things they can do to help save them. Upon completion of the program, students should realize that they can play an important role in the protection of our environment and the animals it supports. Each student receives an activity book (Field Guide to the Houston Zoo) which they complete at the Zoo and take home at the end of the experience. The two-day learning experience culminates with a graduation ceremony where every student becomes a Junior Wildlife Teacher. Follow-up materials, which include activities and pictures that can be shared with other classmates, friends and family members, are also given to all participating students and teachers.
The Wildlife Discovery Program is designed to enhance the third grade science and social studies curriculum through an interdisciplinary approach under the guidance of one coordinator, two certified teachers, and six instructors. The instructional staff is hired from throughout the United States and theyhave a variety of degrees ranging from Biology to Parks and Recreation. They have all had experience working with children in an outdoor setting. Instructors are given extensive formal instructional strategy training by our certified staff.
The Wildlife Discovery Program engages third grade students in multi-sensory and multi-cultural experiences in an outdoor classroom setting at the Houston Zoological Gardens. The educational objective is to have young children begin to develop a base of knowledge that will influence their future decisions regarding the interdependency of the environment and the wildlife it supports. We base our learning activities on three of the most universally recognized concepts in education:
Children learn by doing.
Children learn through discovery.
Children learn through multi-sensory experiences.
By incorporating these as criteria, the program uses the experiential approach to learning. Students are actively involved in their learning and have to depend on their sensory skills to accomplish their tasks.
Each lesson is designed to utilize a Zoo exhibit/animal and can only be accomplished at the Houston Zoo. If a lesson does not meet these criteria, it is not used.
There are four instructional blocks. The first block focuses on animal classification and provides an interactive activity to help students from both schools make friends with each other. The other three lesson blocks focus on the three primary reasons animals are endangered: loss of habitat, pollution, and illegal hunting. Each lesson block contains a hands-on component that shows students something that they can do to help wildlife. Children get to touch animals during the docent presentation in the classification block, they take pictures of the animals in the illegal hunting block, they do gardening activities with native plants in the loss of habitat block, and they help keep the Zoo animals’ home clean by picking up trash in the pollution block. The WDP is committed to provide a meaningful, hands-on learning
experience for every student attending our program at the Houston Zoo.
The lesson development process is very exacting and geared to make the activities graphically appealing, fun and challenging for the students. Our set of Zoo-based lessons (Field Guide to the Houston Zoo) is completely changed three times a year to accommodate the learning curve of the students, new exhibits at the Zoo, and to utilize staff creativity. This is a collaborative effort between all WDP staff with input from the Zoo regarding new/renovated animal exhibits. They are piloted and tested before being sent to the HISD print shop so that they can be duplicated and used by all participating students. Students are given a book, the Photo Safari, to read prior to coming. A copy of our newsletter, the Zoo Review, is given to every child so they can share the field trip details with their parents. These materials help prepare the students for the learning experience they will have at the Zoo. The materials include math, language arts, science, and social studies lessons that the classroom teacher can incorporate into his/her lesson plans at the home school. Because the lessons and the whole learning experience is so well planned and structured,
our program has been very successful and well received by the participating schools and HISD.
The success and popularity of the program has been demonstrated over the past several years as HISD has decentralized its operations. The District’s decentralization process is designed to give individual HISD schools the funds that were originally centrally controlled. A District decentralization committee has completed a three year program to decentralize funds to individual campuses allowing each school community the opportunity and resources to determine the best ways to accomplish the educational goals of that campus. However, because of the uniqueness and demonstrated success of the three Outdoor Education Programs, funding for those programs remains intact.
The operation of the program involves extensive collaboration between the Education Section of the Houston Zoo, the Zoo docents, the Children’s Zoo, HISD, and the WDP. Our instructional day begins at the Brown Education Building that is always in demand for other programs. We send in requests to schedule the animals for the docents, the Brown auditorium for the students, and the Brown conference room for the visiting adults and teachers. We send our calendar to the docents and they schedule the individual docents to do our morning programs. Requests are sent to the HISD Magnet Department to schedule a private bus company to pick up the students at the schools. We use a private bus company so we can get the students to the Zoo at 9:00 AM one hour before the Zoo officially opens. We also have to
coordinate the bus arrival times with the Houston Park police. Schools are notified of their participation dates at the very beginning of each school year. Program materials are sent to the schools prior to attending so that the students will be knowledgeable about the program curriculum when they arrive. The participating teachers send back the student list of names prior to arrival so the students can be scheduled into classes and lesson materials assembled. Teachers send out permission slips to the parents so the students can participate. Students have to bring lunches and the lunch pavilion areas have to be reserved.
If any component of the scheduling process falters, it affects a lot of departments and ultimately, the students. Our job has been to make sure the program works efficiently so we maximize the amount and quality of learning time for the participating students at the Houston Zoo.
The Wildlife Discovery Program works with many other partners as part of the overall collaborative effort to develop quality educational experiences for students. When the original Kidscape location in the old Children’s Zoo was under construction, Shell Oil Corporation volunteers came and built many of the wooden structures used on the site. They also made the Kidscape sign. My father built the very large worktable used by the students for their gardening projects. Texas Parks and Wildlife made plant recommendations/donations for landscaping, as has the horticulturist at the Houston Zoo. The Houston Zoo docents donated funds to help cover some of the cost to construct Kidscape. The Boy Scouts played a big role in the construction at the current Kidscape location by helping to construct the pond and moving many of the materials from the original Kidscape location to the current one. This was done as a community project to earn an Eagle Scout badge. The Houston Zoo maintenance department installed the sprinkler system that is very beneficial during the summer when HISD students are not available to help water. Our web server is located at Rice University. They donate Internet access and web page sites to educational programs that do not have access to the Internet at their facilities. Another important collaborative effort involves the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They donate many of the biofacts we use as exhibits to demonstrate illegal hunting and they are a great resource for materials we give to visiting teachers on endangered species laws. We visit their site every year as part of our staff training. Pappas, a local restaurant, has donated fish displays for our classification lesson presented by the docents. Local nurseries, especially Buchanans and Treesearch Farms, have made generous donations of plants and
landscaping expertise to Kidscape. Through the years, we have had wonderful support and help from much of the community as well as local, state and national governing agencies. We owe much of our success to the support and involvement of the greater Houston community.
Some of the highlights of the Wildlife Discovery Program are:
· Hands-on sensory-based environmental education curriculum.
· Students actively involved in every lesson.
· Safety and supervision are a priority.
· Visiting teachers are encouraged to participate.
· Student discipline, if needed, is consistent and fair for all students.
· The curriculum complements and enhances the curriculum at HISD schools.
· Student learning is the priority.
· Small groups with lots of interaction.
· Students learn ways they can help endangered animals.
· The Zoo teachers are well prepared.
· The Wildlife Discovery Program provides all learning materials.
· A collaborative effort between many city and school departments.
The Wildlife Discovery Program is unique because it provides the Houston Zoo an opportunity to share its educational resources with a great number of students from throughout the Houston Independent School District. The Houston Zoo also realizes many other benefits from our joint venture. WDP classes are a very visible reminder to all Zoo visitors that the Zoo is committed to education. We always act as ambassadors for the Zoo and its programs when we interact with the public or attend conferences and professional meetings. In our lessons, we reinforce the conservation role of the Zoo to our students and visiting teachers. We encourage students to bring their families back to the Zoo so they can show them what they have learned. Our classes demonstrate proper Zoo etiquette and appropriate behavior to the public. We assist the Zoo in making sure it is a safe place for the animals and visitors. We are an educational resource that has helped with Zoo curriculum evaluation, docent training, new exhibit development, and signage. We encourage Zoo staff to contribute articles to The Environmental Update, the WDP newsletter that is sent to every school in HISD and to all Zoo departments. Our office volunteers time and materials for exhibit preparations and sponsors a booth during the Educator’s Open House. We have been in many publications and site-based Zoo festivities that help to promote education and partnership at the Houston Zoo. Perhaps most importantly, programs such as the Wildlife Discovery Program help to create tomorrow’s Zoo visitors and supporters. It is a tremendously successful
partnership that is celebrating twenty years of service to the students in HISD in 2002, and we are looking forward to many more years of providing essential environmental awareness and knowledge to our youngest citizens.
For more information about our program and lesson ideas visit our web site at:
Wildlife Discovery Program Two Day Schedule
Seated in auditorium
Watch video – Endangered Species
Zoo teacher goes over rules, safety, lunch and schedule
Check permission slips
Coordinator goes over class assignments, curriculum, discipline, visiting adult
responsibilities and lunch
Docent presentation – Groups of animals, predator/prey, animal handling
1st lesson block (multicultural activity and animal classification)
2nd lesson block (pollution, loss of habitat or illegal hunting)
Meet and divide back into individual school groups
Teachers given a follow-up packet
Watch video – The Lorax
Review rules, safety and lunch
Docent presentation – Endangered species biofacts
3rd class (pollution, loss of habitat or illegal hunting)
4th class (pollution, loss of habitat or illegal hunting)
Meet and divide back into individual school groups
1 HISD Magnet School Program Description, Office of Research and Evaluation, HISD.
2 Houston Independent School District Profiles 1991-92, p.57.