March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Getting’ WILD at the Zoo!

Posted: Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

by Joanne Michael

I am a big animal lover and have been ever since I was a little girl growing up in Seattle. My father was an ornithologist by hobby and I grew up with neighbors knocking at our door, stunned bird in a box after flying into a window. As an adult, I worked as a ZooCamp Instructor at the Los Angeles Zoo for a summer and during school breaks, and then went through the Docent Program, graduating in spring, 2012. To say I enjoy being around animals is an understatement!

Since becoming a docent, my eyes have been opened to how much science can be taught in the zoo that is beyond the obvious. As a docent, I lead student groups of anywhere between four and ten kids (and hopefully a parent chaperone or two) around the zoo, teaching them information about what they are studying in class, what they had covered earlier in the year, or introducing concepts for them to get excited about when they return to their classroom. Even though docents must go through a year of structured classes and exams, and continue to do yearly review tests, a lot of the information that I teach the kids can be easily learned by any classroom teacher when not in a classroom or traditional campus setting.

For example, before going on your next field trip, see if your zoo has a docent program that can escort your students around the park. Most locations have some form of this, and the docents truly love to educate kids – that is why they are there! Slightly older students, e.g. 3rd grade and higher, seem to get the most out of the experience but obviously any student enjoys a personalized tour. If a docent-led tour is unavailable, make yourself and your chaperones mini docents! Although at first glance some of the following activities may seem young, trust me- I have done this with high school students, and they all love it!

If you’re leading your own group, prepare by grabbing a bag – paper lunch sacks, grocery bags, anything that is relatively small will work. In the bag put a quarter, a piece of sandpaper (ideally 50-grit), and a piece of leather. If your students see a marsupial (e.g. koala, kangaroo, possum, sugar glider, etc.), show the kids the quarter. Marsupials begin life even smaller than the diameter of the quarter, but they wiggle themselves into a pouch on the mother where they will continue to grow until they are large enough to survive. In the pouch is a teat for the baby to receive milk, and the milk actually changes as the baby matures. The baby can be in the pouch for many weeks before a zoo employee will discover it is there! Ask the students to consider how that could be a benefit to the animal? Could it be a disadvantage?

Almost all zoos have felines – animals such as jaguars, tigers, lions, and servals. Spend a minute watching the cats walk around their environment. If possible, take a look at the food that the cats are eating, or see if you can find bones. Ask the students to think about what cats (like their cats at home) eat? They only eat meat, and for this reason we call them carnivores. If cats only eat meat, how do they get it off of the bone? Show them the sandpaper and allow them to feel it, even GENTLY slide it against the back of their hand. Tell the students that cats have tongues that are super rough like this sandpaper, and so they actually will lick the meat right off of the bone!

When the students see a reptile such as a turtle, crocodile, alligator, or snake, ask them if they know that these animals lay eggs. Some may know, but most probably won’t be aware. Tell them that these animals lay their eggs in holes, and ask why would they do that? Is that a good idea, or bad idea? Tell the students that in addition to the holes, these reptiles’ eggs are much more leathery than the eggs we have in our refrigerator, and show them the piece of leather. Would this protect the animal completely? Why is this a good idea? When could it be a disadvantage for the animal?

Out in an open field and studying birds? If you have room, get a long (3 feet or so) piece of nylon rope, and fray one of the ends. Hold the rope by the middle, and swing the non-frayed end over your head in a circle. It should make a whirring noise. Switch ends, and swing the frayed end. It shouldn’t make any noise – why is that? The ends of the rope break up the airflow around the rope, so it doesn’t make the whistle noise. Similarly, if one person jumped into the middle of a deep puddle- there would be a big wave all the way out. If a whole bunch of people jumped into the same big puddle at the same time, there wouldn’t be a single wave out- there would be lots and lots of smaller waves. For birds of prey (falcons, eagles, ospreys), the edges of their wings are frayed like the rope, and so when they fly, it makes almost no noise. Most other birds don’t have this adaptation – how come?

In closing, by doing very short, two-minute demonstrations at the zoo, your students will get a much more memorable experience. Not only will they begin seeing the animals through new eyes, but will start to make connections between different species of animals, giving you a better foundation when you return to your school classroom.

Written by Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael is a K-5 Science Specialist for Manhattan Beach Unified, former CSTA Upper Elementary director, and is a current CSTA member.

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