Using the Zoo as an outdoor classroom

November 16, 2017

There is a special look that a child gets when they experience something for the first time. Their eyes get wide, eyebrows flick up in surprise. Some get quiet, others let out a shout. It is a unique privilege to introduce students to wildlife and nature, and I feel lucky that this is part of my job with the Seneca Park Zoo Society.

As the School and Group Programs Coordinator, I develop and lead students on a wide variety of expeditions throughout the Zoo and Seneca Park. Expeditions are engaging, interactive lessons that use the Zoo as an outdoor classroom. We have expeditions designed for students in grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.

Our expeditions all have a conservation message, whether we are inspiring our youngest learners to conserve water or encouraging older students to be stewards of biodiversity. I work with local teachers to make sure each expedition is tailored to meet the needs of their group. All expeditions are aligned to meet NextGen and New York State Science Standards. We use an inquiry-based approach to learning where students are experiencing science through hands-on activities.

A Long Walk to Water - Photo by Mina Johnson

One of my favorite expeditions to lead is A Long Walk to Water. This program is for middle school students and is based on the book with the same name. As part of the expedition, students take turns caring a 2.5-gallon jug of water as we walk to Trout Lake in Seneca Park. One of the characters in the book makes daily treks to gather water for her family, so hopefully this helps students realize what a luxury it is to have water available on tap.

When we arrive at the pond the students conduct water quality tests. They are so excited to use the scientific equipment, whether it is conducting a pH test or using a net to sample macroinvertebrates. The students take such pride in their results, and it is fun to watch them compete to see who can find the most macroinvertebrates.

At the conclusion of each expedition, I always reiterate our conservation message. I hope that the students have made a personal connection to the animals at the Zoo and care about the fate of those species in their natural range. This quote by Jane Goodall sums up the purpose of expeditions at Seneca Park Zoo: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.”

– Gretchen Spencer, School and Group Programs Coordinator

Interested in scheduling an Expedition for your next field trip?