From Swamps and Bogs to Pollywogs
Little Rock Zoo
Wetlands are perceived by many to be smelly swamps that attract nothing but mosquitoes (Smardon, 1989). With the emphasis AZA has placed on frog conservation and the dire need for wetland conservation (Dugan, 1990), Docents at the Little Rock Zoo (LRZ) undertook a project in 2009 to help change this image by offering students a fun and innovative way to explore the
The LRZ education department is in a unique position because it is surrounded by a natural “wetland” area that is teaming with plant and animal life. The LRZ classroom sits in a partially undeveloped area of the zoo which was once used as a café. On the public side is a pond with native and non-native migratory birds and water fowl. The non-public side is encircled by a natural “wetland” with native plants, amphibians and insects.
This area is the ideal setting for a wetlab. Docents designed a summer zoo camp around this wetlab idea, utilizing docent made materials and materials from Project Wet! Microscope and water sampling equipment was obtained with funding from an AZAD grant. Our summer camps consist of 2 sessions with 12 kids in each session. The wetland camp was offered to children in 4-6th grade and each session lasted one week.
The idea behind the camp was to familiarize the students with field biology and jobs in that area.
Each day of the camp was more and more hands on. Students were given “junior intern” name badge on the first day, and they were told what was expected of a field biologist. Several of the docent teachers had experience with field biology (two B.S. Biology degrees, plus students of biology) so they could accurately talk about field work.
Field biology is an overlooked “animal conservation” job, especially at the LRZ. Classes about keepers and veterinary medicine are often offered, however the important job of field conservation is overlooked. These individuals are very important to the conservation message zoos share, so learning about and inspiring youth to pursue these jobs is very important.
Another underlying message of the wetland camp was conservation. Class materials emphasized the importance of wetlands to human’s ecology, culture and economy. Conservation tips were given to students, and sent home with them in the class materials. The emphasis of our “field research” was determining if a wetland was “healthy” or “unhealthy.” The class discussed what caused the wetland to be unhealthy, and if it could be helped. The class was “tested” in a fun way about the objectives from the previous day every morning to emphasis important points.
The first day of the class was dedicated to learning about wetland basics. Field biologists often need to hit the books before the go out in the field! Docents had collected samples from wetlands around Arkansas that fit with the different types of wetlands to show students the plants, animals and soils found there.
The following days utilized the zoo and keepers to give students a hands-on look at amphibians (day 2) and Arkansas wetland animals (day 3). We also introed the microscope and microscope technique to look at prepared slides of frog eggs and several wetland plants found in Arkansas.
Live specimens of tadpole were looked at with a projection microscope. We were lucky to find several stages of metamorphosis in our collected samples. We introed collection techniques, water testing, wet mount preparation and what a wetlands researcher in Arkansas would be looking for in various locations. For example, we had several prepared slides of algae, bacteria and plants from polluted or putrid waterways. We also had prepared slides of organisms you’d find in healthy waterways, but not in unhealthy ones. These differences will help students identify “unhealthy” water, and also helped to demonstrate the impact a wetland has on the ecology of the surrounding environment.
The final day was wetland day. The students were divided into groups to see what they learned. Each team was asked if the LRZ wetland was healthy or not. They were instructed to sample, test and report as they wanted (with help from Docent teacher). The original plan was to have the students to make poster presentations about their findings, but after having them make sketches from the Arkansas water samples, it was decided that posters would take up the
majority of class time. Instead, the students and teachers worked together to report findings to the rest of the class.
Some of the materials produced by Docents were a 30 page booklet about the wetlands that every child who took the class received, brochures celebrating migratory bird day and wetland awareness and posters about Arkansas Wetlands, frogs and native bird conservation.
Some of the materials designed were used as outreach for several other events. We used some of the posters created for the class to celebrate migratory bird day and at one state park outreach.
Brochures were designed to emphasis the importance of the wetland and were passed out at these events. We also utilized the microscopes at 2-3 events (and hope to do more).
In our grant proposal, we had hoped to showcase the outreach materials at several events that did not take place because of budget constraints at our zoo. The education department was cut back significantly during the summer as well, so the outreach portion of the project didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. However, the materials are still available for use, and they will be
utilized this summer. We did not get a chance to repeat the camp this summer, but are considering doing a scaled back version next year.
As with many projects, the biggest hurdle was classroom management. The “Field Research” day posed the most trouble. The first session of the class was eager to learn, eager to use the microscopes and did quite well with the independent nature of the last day. The second session had several active and easily bored children who required more structure. Because the last day of the class was designed to be somewhat free, we had to modify it quite a bit for this second group. This outcome was anticipated when the camp was designed, so several surplus activities were built in.
The class was designed to go from structured to less and less structure (more free work/hands on) everyday, so we got a good feel for the kids before we let them loose in the wetland (which could be dangerous). We were pleased to find out that this structure not only fit with our theme, but also allowed us to identify behavioral problems. So, for example, we knew to let the second class collect water samples in a smaller area, where horseplay wasn’t a safety
issue, where the other class had free reign. Even the second class seemed to have fun and learned a little, which met our expectations.
Arkansas is a state known for its wetlands. Early settlers described Arkansas based upon what they saw in the delta regions. This is not only reflected in our landscape, but our culture, as the delta wetlands helped to shape the economy and culture of Arkansas.
However, even in Arkansas, the wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate (MR Kress, 1996). In a wetland rich state like Arkansas, it is surprising how many people do not see the value in wetlands and do not realize where their water comes from. By teaching students that wetlands are full of life, exciting and even fun, they will grow to see the value in the wetlands.
Perhaps the next time a friend or family member litters or pollutes our water stream, they will speak up. Teaching students to care for all life, from the tiniest tadpole to the largest alligator, was the goal of our project.