A Little Class On The Prairie
Denver Zoo, Denver, CO
If you ask what impressions people have when describing Colorado, most individuals will give such responses as … mountains … snow … skiing … big game hunting … and fishing. But, what about the rest of the state? “Well,” come the answers, “drab … monotonous … life-less… boring … etc,” and so it appears … on the surface. Children, especially, have difficulty recognizing the vibrancy and dynamics of life on the prairie.
When described as an ecosystem, the eastern third of Colorado is a temperate steppe, most of which is better known as the “short grass prairie” or plain. This apparently bland environment actually consists of a vast variety of short grasses, herbs, semi-desert plants, shrubs and occasional low trees. There is also a sizeable assortment of animal life, consisting of more species and variety than one finds in the better-known mountainous areas of the state.
To provide a better understanding of the diversified environment of Colorado, the state has long incorporated a study of the “prairie” into the school curriculum for the 3rd and 4th grades, as a part of the coverage of Colorado history. Over the years, the Denver Zoo had provided collateral coverage of Colorado wildlife through its broad interactions with the public, and especially with the teachers and students of the educational community. School tours at the zoo and responses to teacher queries have, in the past, provided the bulk of the supporting effort. Eventually, in 1986, we determined that a more direct approach to the issue was in order, and based on many requests from the school system, we designed, developed and implemented a very specific prairie outreach program. This initial program was targeted at achieving a better appreciation for the plant and animal life and climatic conditions found on the eastern Colorado prairie … thus was born the Denver Zoo’s Prairie Van Program.
The program was developed through the combined efforts of the staff of the Zoo’s Education Department and the zoo volunteers. While the basic concept and design originated from the dedicated group of zoo staff and volunteers, the necessary state standards were incorporated throughout the program to insure compliance with all of the state prerequisites. What shall we show them? What shall we take with us? These questions, and many others, formed the basis of many small group discussions and planning sessions.
Several basic concepts were integrated into the presentation. This included coverage of the typical climatic conditions found on the prairie at various times of the year, the important plant and animal adaptations necessary to survive in such a harsh environment, a description of the major species of animals that live in this habitat and their interactions with one another, a discussion of the food chain, coverage of some conservation issues, and a focus on the prairie dog as the “keystone” or signature species of the short grass prairie. We also determined which animals would be brought to the classroom for the education and enjoyment of the children. The first program design incorporated a 50-minute, five-part approach to the presentation, which included:
– A brief introduction to Colorado’s eastern plain with emphasis on the climatic variations during both summer and winter. We also briefly described the vegetation found in this somewhat harsh environment.
– This was followed by a slide presentation that depicted various species of birds, mammals and reptiles found on the short grass prairie. In each case we talked about the characteristics and adaptations that insured the success of that particular animal. During the slide presentation, we also incorporated a tape recording of the calls of several of the birds and other animals to provide a sense of realism to the presentation
– Following the general slide presentation, we talked about a typical prairie dog coterie. Using appropriate visuals, we focused on the organization and life found in a prairie dog tunnel complex, including the key elements of its architectural design and the animal life found in and around the town.
– We then had a focused discussion of the Web of Life and conservation issues, using a felt board with plant and animal cutouts. This rounded out the basic classroom presentation.
– Perhaps the most popular part of the program was a “round-robin” presentation of various live animals that were carried out on the van. Here, the students had a close-up opportunity to see and touch some of the animals. The animals that accompanied the original presentation included a prairie dog, a kestrel, a hog-nose snake or bullsnake, and a box turtle.
While a significant amount of time was spent in writing the presentation, a much greater period of time was involved in developing or acquiring the supporting materials, graphics and audio segments. Given the nature of the target audience, the guiding principles for all audiovisual aids included: simplicity, moderate cost, and transportability. The Denver Zoological Foundation provided a van for use in the program. The outside of the van was painted with various depictions of wildlife, thus creating a very distinctive vehicle that was identified with the program. The sketch of the prairie dog coterie consisted of a painted prairie scene on a large 4’X5′ board showing a cutaway view of the inside of a typical burrow system. During the course of the presentation, the decent would apply various animal cutouts to the scene with “stick um” that had been pre-placed on the back of the cutout. A similar approach was used for the felt-board presentation of the Web of Life. The use of live animals created its own set of logistical considerations. We had to provide water for the animals when we had them out for long periods of time, and we included extra towels and pillowcases for the reptiles in the event they soiled their original packing materials. We learned early on the importance of carrying spare projection bulbs, extension cords, batteries, easels, and towels and other supplies.
Following the design of the program, the Education Department conducted a series of continuing education sessions to train the docents in the basic program concepts and the procedures for conducting the program in a classroom environment. The docents themselves played a major role in the presentation of the C.E. Because of the complex nature of the total approach, it was decided that at least four docents were necessary to conduct the program. Each volunteer would conduct one of the four presentation segments, i.e.. Introduction, Slide Show, Prairie Dog Village, and Web of Life, with all four docents participating in the live animal-handling segment of the program. As a typical school presentation usually required presenting the program to multiple class groups, the docents would rotate among themselves in presenting the first four segments of the program.
Finally, the prairie van program was launched as a formal offering of the Denver Zoo. Using a variety of methods to “get the word out,” including a direct newsletter announcement to the teachers, we initiated the program throughout the Denver metro area. Later, with the advent of a six-county-wide Scientific & Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), the free program offering was extended to most of the public and private schools located in Denver and its five adjacent counties. Prior to presenting a program at a school, a pre/post program study packet was sent to the individual teachers to provide them an opportunity for guided coverage of the program essentials with their students prior to the docents’ presentation in the classroom.
As a result of the success of the prairie van program, a separate effort was made to design and develop a dedicated van program covering only reptiles. This program was directed to the 5th and 6″‘ grade levels, and was designed to support the general coverage of the animal classification segment of the school curriculum. The reptile program was also designed as a multi-part presentation, which included: an introduction to the major reptile family groups. Turtles, Lizards, Snakes, Crocodilians, and Dinosaurs, and their common characteristics; a slide presentation showing various reptiles; a presentation of a “Time Line” which graphically portrayed the chronology of the rise of reptiles over time; and a presentation of both live animals and biofacts to provide a “hands-on” element to the presentation. As the reptile van program used the same vehicle as the prairie van program, the two offerings were scheduled on alternating days to avoid conflicts in van availability. Once again, all program materials were developed and designed primarily by the docents.
More recently, during 1998, a third van program was added to our outreach effort. Animal Discovery was designed to provide a very basic and simple introduction to the world of animals to students in grades K through 2, and is intended to help them understand the basic differences between mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects. The program once again supports the general school curriculum in the general area of plant and animal classification. Close contact with living examples of the various animal groups creates an opportunity for positive interaction with the students in their own classroom environment.
Thus, an important element in this program is the selection of the animals to be brought out to the schools as part of the presentation. The student and teacher reactions to the prairie and reptile presentations, for the most part, have been very positive. Depending upon the extent to which the teacher prepared the class prior to our presentation, student response has varied from good to excellent. In many cases, the Zoo’s Education Department received letters
from the students describing how happy they were with the presentation, what they learned, and which animals they liked the most.
For the most part, the original van programs achieved many of the intended results. The students had a better appreciation for life on the prairie and a better understanding of the crucial balance of ecosystem relationships that we attempted to portray in our programs.
The teachers frequently mentioned that the programs dovetailed very nicely into, and supported the curriculum coverage of those specific grades. They also expressed appreciation for our allowing the children to interact closely with the animals that were part of the program.
Over the course of time, several program shortfalls and problems occurred. Concerns were noted in the following areas:
– Instructional approach – Because of the amount of material that needed to be covered, including an exceptionally long slide presentation, there was little opportunity for frequent student interaction with the docents.
– Student attention – During the lengthy slide presentation, there was a tendency for some students to lose interest in the program, resulting in some side conversations or other disruptive behavior.
– Program timing – On numerous occasions, we were required to present the program in a shorter time block than the established fifty-minute program length. As a result, the program had to be presented in an abbreviated version, which reduced both the time available for interaction with the students, as well as the time allotted for contact with the animals and biofacts.
– In-school movement of materials and equipment – Most bookings involved multiple presentations on a single day. Making up to four presentations at a school was common. However, in many cases, we were required to move from classroom to classroom. This resulted in time lost from the program as classes were often booked end-to-end, thus affecting the integrity of the presentation. The docents also found that putting on as many as four presentations in a single day was very tiring and stressful, both to the docents and the animals.
– Inadequate classroom facilities – The docents frequently encountered classroom facilities that were inadequate in size, available lighting and organization.
– Durability of materials – After repeated presentations, much of the display material became worn and in need of replacement or repair. In particular, a number of the animal cutouts became lost or damaged through repeated handling and movement. The audio tape recording of animal sounds and calls lost fidelity over time.
– Animal handling techniques – There were no established uniform procedures or guidelines for the handling of the animals in the classroom. This situation raised the possibility of animal bites or physical injury to the animals. In addition, some docents felt comfortable in working only with certain animals, which placed an additional burden on those docents who could work with all of the animals.
– Student pre-class preparation. – We discovered that many teachers had not reviewed the pre-class materials with their students before our presentation. As a result, in many cases, the students were not prepared to actively participate in the program.
Through the years, both the prairie and reptile van programs had been well-received and much sought-after outreach presentations. However, after a careful review and assessment of the identified problems and shortcomings, we felt that some improvements could be made in program design that would significantly enhance the effectiveness and suitability of the offerings. To overcome some of the more obvious problems, we decided to make changes in the areas of instructional technique, design of the audiovisual materials, animal handling techniques, and the administrative guidelines for conducting the programs at the schools.
Working in conjunction with the Education Department staff, we organized a staff/docent committee to revise the presentation. The process extended over a six-month period. Members of the committee then presented a training program to the docents who were interested in participating in the redesigned van programs.
One of the first decisions we made was to do away with the slide presentations. By eliminating the need to work in a darkened room, we hoped to be able to achieve a higher level of attention from the students. A second decision was to employ a more Socratic method of classroom presentation in order to get the students to interact more directly with the docents. This process involved having the docents use a questioning approach rather than merely lecturing to the students. This provides an opportunity for the students to play a larger role in the general development of the presentation. The five-part presentation that had been used in the past was changed to present a more connected flow of information. The only part of the old format that remained essentially unchanged was the introduction.
– The Introduction. – This segment provides the backdrop for the rest of the program. It continues to cover such things as the climate, weather extremes, and the nature of the vegetation. As a segue into the rest of the presentation, the decent mentions that the following segments will focus on the animals of the air, the ground, and the underground.
– Animals of the Air. – In this segment, the students are introduced to the variety of birds that are found on the short grass prairie. We decided to organize the presentation into three categories: songbirds, birds that scratch the ground, and raptors. The primary focus was to get the students to recognize the interrelationship of the birds to their habitat, what they eat, who are their predators, where they nest in the absence of many trees, what is the predominant color of most of the birds, and what would be the impact on the environment be if they were not there. During this segment, the decent displays a kestrel, discusses its characteristics, its design for hunting, and its physical features common to raptors in general.
– Animals of the Ground. – This segment continues to address issues similar to those in the previous segment, with a focus on such animals as the coyote, the pronghorn, and the bison. Once again, the approach is to uncover the relationship of these animals to their environment, their food sources, their predators, conservation issues, and features in common to herbivores and carnivores in general. While no live animals are used in this segment, we show the students various biofacts associated with these animals including several pelts and sheaths in the case of the pronghorn.
– Animals That Live Underground. – We now discuss those animals that live underground but feed on the surface. This is the segment that the students really enjoy. We start with a discussion of common prairie snakes such as the hognose snake, the bull snake and the prairie rattlesnake. The docent presenting this section displays either a hognose snake or a bullsnake. While the children are encouraged to touch the snake, they are not required to do so if they have any reservations. The issues that are covered parallel those of the preceding sections. Following the snakes, we go into a discussion of the badger and the black-footed ferret. The coverage of the bison and ferret provides an excellent
opportunity to talk about endangered species and the role that man has played or is playing in their recovery. The live animal shown at this point is the European polecat (or common ferret). This segment is concluded with coverage of the prairie dog, emphasizing its role as the keystone or signature species of the prairie. The discussion includes the organization of the burrow system, interrelationships of the prairie dogs with other prairie animals, and finally, the impact of human encroachment on the prairie dog habitat.
– Web of Life and Conservation Issues. – Coverage of the Web of Life (Food Chain) and conservation issues are woven throughout the entire program, with added emphasis at the close of the presentation.
Throughout the presentation, the children are given the opportunity to see and touch many of the animals. The children are shown how to use a “two-finger” approach when touching the animals. In the time remaining at the close of the presentation, the children are allowed to come to the front of the room and visit with the animals and biofacts under the guidance of the docents. The children are then given a wipe packet to use to wipe their hands before leaving the room, and are also advised to wash their hands with soap and water before eating any food.
In addition to a redesign of the program approach and presentation techniques, we developed a completely new set of supporting audiovisual materials. Actual animal photos were enlarged to poster size to replace the former slide presentation. Initially, the enlarged photos were mounted on poster boards. In a number of cases, boards carried multiple photos. In use, however, we found that this created a handling and transportation nightmare, both in terms of overall weight and quantity of individual items. Also, a number of photos started to peel off of the poster boards. We later redesigned this element into a “loose-leaf” binder format. The photos were removed from the poster board, laminated and then mounted on a lightweight large-ring aluminum-coated backboard, with a protective cover sheet. This made the presentation materials lighter in weight and more compact for ease of transportation and use. The “Prairie Dog Coterie” display board was redone in a more professional manner, and we now use a series of flip-down transparency overlays with the animals of the air, the ground and underground permanently attached to these transparencies. We rerecorded the animal sounds to correspond with the new presentation sequence, purchased a better audio playback system and a new topographical map of Colorado, and eliminated the felt board that was used for, the Web of Life presentation. To enhance the experience of the students, we acquired a new set of biofacts to be used during the presentation. In those cases where it was impractical to show a live animal, we purchased appropriate
biofact displays. These included pelts or partial pelts of the coyote, bison, pronghorn, and badger, a set of
horns for the pronghorn, and examples of some raptor feathers.
Because of the concerns about the lack or uniformity in handling the animals, the Education Animal Keeper developed a new decent training program designed to standardize handling procedures. Docent training in these skills is now a requirement for all programs where animals are handled, including all van outreach programs and hospital visits, as well as all of the zoo’s on-grounds programs. The docents participating in the van programs now pack load and return the animals to the Education Department’s animal holding area. This was formerly a staff responsibility.
The redesign was accomplished for both the prairie and reptile van programs. In the reptile van program, both the slide presentation and time line board were eliminated.
To maintain the highest possible proficiency and energy level among the docents, we elected to limit the number of presentations at any one school to a maximum of three. We also established a maximum class size of 30 students at any one presentation. To reduce the incidence of equipment damage and to insure ease of program set up, we decided to ask the schools to provide a single presentation room at their location as opposed to our having to move the program from room to room when making multiple class presentations.
With the exception of those schools having major space and facility limitations, many of the schools have been able to accommodate this request by placing us in their auditorium, music room, library, science room, or other similar facility. In some cases, the individual classrooms are quite small with very little room for equipment setup and display. This has resulted in many “innovative” designs for setup and presentation.
Whenever possible, we now try to advise the teachers in advance of our space requirements, hoping that they can make some accommodations to meet our needs. With the elimination of the slide presentation, room lighting is no longer a major problem. The same holds true for the availability of electricity. In the older version of the program, it was necessary that an electrical outlet be available for the slide projector. In many cases, an appropriate outlet was either not available or inconveniently located. An extension cord was a very necessary part of the equipment package. With the elimination of the slide projector, this requirement was eliminated. While there is a requirement for a power supply for the audiotape playback unit, the use of batteries helps in those cases where an outlet is not conveniently located.
We try to meet with the teacher for a few minutes before the presentation to help define his or her role in maintaining a good learning environment. We have found that most are very cooperative in assisting in this regard.
We then introduced the redesigned programs to the educational community through teacher newsletter releases prepared by our Education Department. While school requests for program bookings in the past were more than adequate, the number of requests has increased substantially with the advent of the new design.
During calendar years 1997 and 1998, more than 9,300 students participated in the prairie and reptile van programs. Our newest program, Animal Discovery, began presentations this year with an exposure of 385 students during its first month and a half of operation. This gave us a total count for all three programs of just under 10,000 participants.
Overall, the response of the students to the new prairie van approach has been very gratifying. There has been a very high level of student interest and participation during the presentations. At the conclusion of the presentations, the teachers have expressed their appreciation for the new approach, and all have agreed that this is a much better program than the one previously offered. In general, there is consensus that the program contributes significantly to the students’ understanding and appreciation for the Colorado short grass prairie and its associated wildlife.
One of the more rewarding aspects of the programs is the positive response we continue to receive from thestudents themselves. In many cases, the students address their letters directly to the docents who participated in their classroom. These reactions to our programs make it all worthwhile.
While this response has been very rewarding to all of us who have played a role in their design and development, we all still feel that the existing programs are “works in progress,” and that modification and improvement will be an ongoing activity. Even now, the Education Department is looking at some new approaches that will extend the zoo’s offerings to meet the curriculum needs of middle school children, and eventually to our high school students.