Putting Culture In Your Natural History Program: Lessons Learned from the Wonders in Nature-Wonders in Neighborhoods Program
Denver Zoo, Denver, CO
Five years ago, a unique opportunity emerged for the Denver Zoo and the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) to create a natural science education program that solved the concerns of many other programs and incorporated the current trends and issues of current educational thought. The challenge was to identify the obstacles and issues, then to create the solutions.
The initial determination was to identify an underserved audience common to the zoo and DOW-urban youth. With that audience in mind, other challenges identified included lack of teacher prep time, little to no surplus money from teachers or schools for supplies or transportation, under equipped science labs at the elementary level, presence of several “first languages” in each school, lack of student experience in outdoors beyond his/her own neighborhood, teachers that often lack knowledge and comfort in teaching natural sciences, and the long term value of programs that give a one-time presentation. Added to this was a list of current educational trends including multi-cultural education; focus on math and literacy, inter-disciplinary curriculums, and partnerships.
After the research, focus groups, interviews, and planning was “over,” the result was the Wonders in Nature-Wonders in Neighborhoods (W.I.N.-W.I.N.) program.
The Wonders in Nature-Wonders in Neighborhoods (W.I.N.-W.I.N.) program is coordinated by the Denver Zoo and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, but is truly a partnership of many organizations, people, and foundations. The mission of W.I.N.-W.I.N. is to make natural science part of the daily lives of urban citizens, increasing their understanding of their roles and responsibility in the natural world. The program is intended to inspire a sense of wonder in participants, to facilitate knowledge of basic environmental cycles and processes taking place in urban environments, to foster an appreciation for wildlife and their habitat, to enhance understanding of local environmental problems and advance solutions to those problems, and to promote the conservation of natural resources through a variety of learning experiences.
Specific goals of the program include:
1. Heighten student awareness and appreciation of natural world.
2. Increase involvement of the Denver Zoo and DOW in local communities.
3. Expand community’s perceptions and knowledge of roles of the Denver Zoo and DOW.
4. Increase student factual knowledge of natural world using multi-visit, multi-year, and field trip experiences.
5. Provide natural science experiences, activities, and fieldwork to schools with limited opportunity to provide same.
6. Model hands-on science education teaching to classroom teachers and parents.
7. Excite adult caregivers to explore natural sciences with children.
8. Provide educational natural science alternatives outside the traditional school day.
9. Demonstrate role models in science career opportunities.
10. Encourage cooperative programming and sharing of resources among city’s many natural science institutions.
11. Provide opportunities for additional teacher training (Project WILD/WET/PLT, Endangered Species loan kit, etc.)
12. Develop Internet and other technologies for use by students in classrooms and as a teacher resource/training.
The W.I.N.-W.I.N. program targets diverse cultural and ethnic students and their families in the six-county urban Denver Metro areas, an audience which repeatedly underutilizes environmental opportunities, resources, and knowledge. Criteria used for selecting participating schools includes location in an urban setting, high cultural diversity, socioeconomic diversity, willingness of all teachers to participate, the principal’s approval for the school to participate, and factors as described by the school which would make the program especially beneficial to their students and the surrounding community.
W.I.N.-W.I.N. partnerships allow a coordinated and unified effort among the partners to avoid duplicating programming experiences, to provide relevant hands-on classroom experiences, and to give students a unique experience at each field trip site. W.I.N.-W.I.N. helps students understand the continuity of wildlife needs which begins in their own neighborhoods and extends from the short grass prairies up through the alpine tundra in Colorado. In’ addition, the unique programming offered by W.I.N.-W.I.N; removes the barriers of non-accessibility and cultural and language differences, opening this realm of education to normally excluded populations. The program is tailored to the attitudes, opinions, and values of Denver’s urban residents.
The program consists of four main components:
1. Four to seven classroom visits with lessons provided by a W.I.N.-W.I.N. educator. Content of each lesson is derived through community input, school district input, and state education standard requirements. Lessons are hands-on, inter-disciplinary, and, multi-cultural, and strive to use resources not generally available to the classroom teacher such as staff, equipment, live animals, mounts, etc.
2. Two field trips per student with the W.I.N.-W.I.N. program providing transportation and all gate entry fees. The field trips are designed to take students to various natural settings in the area to augment what they have learned previously in the classroom. The presentations and activities at each field trip site are specific to urban students.
3. Three to five pre- and post-visit activities for each classroom lesson and most field trips. Classroom teachers are expected to do at least one of each. ALL materials and resources for every activity are provided to each teacher. Media needs such as books, tapes, tape players, etc. are provided, one per school, to the media center.
4. Family Science Nights once a year at each school. Students become the experts and teach activities (from lessons as well as pre-and post-visit activities) and corresponding knowledge content to family members.
In addition, the W.I.N.-W.I.N. program addressed other identified concerns with:
1. All lessons and activities are completely correlated to Colorado State Model Content Standards.
2. Interdisciplinary lessons and pre- and post-visit activities, including all materials necessary for teachers to carry out all activities.
3. Multi-cultural component includes the contributions of individuals from many cultures to science knowledge, and explores the importance of the topic to many different ethnic and cultural groups.
4. Entire school must participate for multiple years. It is not a decision for individual teachers to make. Each student has the benefit of long-term involvement in the program, not just isolated one-time experiences.
5. W.I.N.-W.I.N. Program Educators, with cultural background to match populations of students at schools, visiting each class in their assigned schools four to seven times per year.
6. All student pages and parent communications available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
7. W.I.N.-W.I.N. program training for all teachers with a user-friendly teacher handbook for each unit.
8. Additional teacher training on varied topics for only teachers in the W.I.N.-W.I.N. program.
9. All-expenses-paid field trips for each grade
One aspect of the program required major considerations and has impacted many other areas of the zoo – the multi-cultural component. Within the schools selected, five major cultural groups were identified: Native American, Asian American, African American, Hispanic, and European American. When the program was conceived, cultural groups were just moving from “treat us all the same” to “treat us all the same but recognize that we are alt different and not the same.” “Remember us,” meant include our story the true way-the way it REALLY happened. Use our people, reach us the way we like (but not saying what that was), do not do what offends us (whatever that is); don’t use our stories unless you are of our culture (you can’t understand what they really mean), and on and on. Educators and interpreters were left with a lot of do’s and don’ts and not very many how’s.
The struggle was how to include the valid concerns of each cultural group and still teach something about their scientific culture. Not only is each cultural group different from the others, but also no cultural group is homogenous within itself. Finally, no program is made up of participants from only one cultural group at a time. There is no time to learn everything about every cultural group, so was the information to be only the WASP point of view? If every bit of information had to be delivered from every cultural point of view, there would be no time for the meat of the program.
Here the first step was to develop a questionnaire and receive input from individuals within each cultural group in the DENVER metro area-not Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. What do the different cultural groups face in our city? No individual could comment on the list of a culture to which he/she did not belong.
1. Once compiled, these lists were made available to W.I.N.-W.I.N. Program Educators and staff at field trip Sites for reference.
2. A workshop was coordinated with representatives of each cultural group presenting information on how his/her culture feels about the environment and nature. Response and feedback to this was great, and another one should be offered in the near future.
3. A notebook containing short biographies of individuals from all cultures who have contributed to the world’s understanding of natural sciences is kept for reference. Program educators are encouraged to read this and learn about the people so they can mention them in appropriate conversations and topics.
4. Dates of cultural holidays and community events are kept visible so the Program Educators are aware of what different cultures may be celebrating at any time.
5. Every lesson including its classroom presentation as well as pre- and post-visit activities include at least one activity and/or information from each cultural group.
From the concerted effort to be culturally sensitive and aware in the W.I.N.-W.I.N. program, other aspects of the zoo have benefited:
1. More on-grounds cultural events and entertainment feature non-European cultures
2. The zoo participates in many community cultural events and highlights animals in the collection familiar to that culture.
3. Docents receive a half-day interpretive training session as part of their required Docent training on multi-cultural awareness. In this, several suggestions are made for their programs:
a. Include animals from every continent on every program.
b. Learn folk tales and legends from different cultures on various animals.
c. Apologize if you offend someone from a culture different than yours.
d. Be careful that conservation messages (pollution, poaching, etc.) do not point to any one culture as the “bad guy.”
e. Ask for more information on an animal or issue when a participant says “In my culture…” You may learn something valuable.
While the inclusion of cultures in programs is still not perfect, staff and volunteers make great efforts to make EVERY participant feel part of the natural world and to realize that every culture has made contributions to our understanding of how nature works. It is fun for the presenters as well as the participants, and opens a new understanding of each person’s place in the future of our natural world.