The Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) and the Bronx Zoo have been awarded a $450,000 grant to make life science a wild experience for high school students across the country using web-based instruction and live animals. To be developed over the next four years, the project will use the appeal of animals to bring science closer to students.

“We know that people of all ages love live animals,” said Tom Naiman, director of curriculum development and international education at the WCS, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. “What we strive to do is use these exciting and charismatic animals to teach science and make the scientific process something that is fun.”

Using the internet, students will be able to observe the behavior of different animals and communicate one-on-one with zoo experts via eMail and threaded discussions. “The internet allows us to bring the zoo into the classroom in a way that you just can’t do with printed materials,” Naiman said.

“We might, for example, use some of the data gathered on the movement of wolf packs in Yellowstone,” Naiman explained to reporters. “We would put that info on the web site and ask students to draw conclusions about their movements. We’ll also have opportunities for students to get their own data on air temperature, water quality and wildlife populations.”

The project is called “Wild Science.” The grant to the Bronx Zoo is part of the $12 million the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) donated this year to advance science education.

“One of the things that makes curriculum development richer at a place like this is that we have a staff of leading scientists on site here at the Bronx Zoo,” Naiman said. The zoo, which has been managing living animal collections for 100 years, employs distinguished field and zoo scientists who have conducted groundbreaking research in disciplines from genetics to primatology.

In addition, the zoo’s wildlife exhibits are excellent living laboratories that students can use to study animal biology, behavior, adaptations, and habitats, Naiman said.

Thousands of schoolchildren attend Bronx Zoo education programs each year, but most children, even in New York City, can’t visit the zoo daily to see the animals. The internet will dramatically increase access for children across the country and around the world.

The Wild Science curriculum will have a web site featuring internet-based learning activities, projects, and videos of the animals. In addition, the web site will have links to online study resources, late-breaking scientific news, a gallery for sharing student projects, and online teachers’ support consisting of virtual newsletters and bulletin boards.

Over the next four years, WCS plans to create enough content to fill an entire school semester, but it will be broken into modules to give teachers flexibility to do only one or two units. Some of the topics include genetics, predators, nutrition, and primatology.

“Our goal is to turn high school students into wildlife scientists,” Naiman said. Students will not only learn what zoo experts do at work, but will learn the science behind the work. The curriculum aims to place students in the role of true scientists. They will tackle real-life ecological challenges while practicing scientific inquiry.

For example, students will learn how to do the same census techniques used by real wildlife scientists. In one of the activities, students will conduct a wildlife census in their own neighborhood and learn to mathematically approximate the size of local wildlife populations. “If they are in a school in New York City near Central Park, they might see mammals, insects, and bird species,” Naiman said.

Working with the zoo’s nutritionist, students will learn about and create model diets for various species including the correct proportions of calories and vitamins.

A unit on genetics will teach students about the intricacies of breeding animals. For instance, the zoo employs a species coordinator who is responsible for making sure there is no inbreeding amongst animals kept in the nation’s zoos.

The curriculum will use real data and the work from the zoo’s scientists so students can analyze it compared to their own observations and draw conclusions. There will be some printed materials available for schools without internet access, but primarily the content and resources will be accessible online.

“Our goal is to really provide some depth and let students really sink their teeth into science,” Naiman said.

WCS also believes teaching life science with live animals will help make students more environmentally aware. “We believe for people to be environmentally literate and conscious-minded they have to have a strong education in the sciences,” Naiman said.

The WCS will develop Wild Science in light of the national science education standards and in consultation with a group of teachers from metropolitan New York City.

“A lot of curriculum publishing is done by publishing companies with minimal involvement of classroom teachers,” Naiman asserted. “We think it’s crucial to involve teachers along the way.”

WCS has not yet determined how much this curriculum will cost. “Our goal is not to make money off this,” Naiman said. The grant to WCS came in the fourth round of funding to such projects from HHMI. The institute’s grant program does not rule out school-based projects, but it is specifically targeted to science education programs originating outside the traditional elementary or secondary school setting.

The institute’s stated funding objectives are “to strengthen the science literacy of children and their families, to provide resources for better science teaching, to engage families and communities in science education, to stimulate an interest in careers in research and education, and to foster collaborations between informal science education centers and other community institutions.”

A panel of scientists, educators, and museum-program specialists reviewed 235 applications for the current round of funding. Since 1992, HHMI has awarded 125 grants totaling $30.6 million to museums and other informal science education centers.

Links:

Wildlife Conservation Society
http://wcs.org

Howard Hughes Medical Institute
http://www.hhmi.org