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Zoo School: Where Education, Fun and Conservation Meet

Stephen Brown

The values of conservation can never be taught too early. Every young generation is challenged with finding solutions to repair the environmental damage caused by generations past and present—a tall yet essential task.

Fennec Foxes - The Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society

   Helping to spread the word of conservation is the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society. Apart from its everyday educational programs, the zoo operates a unique opportunity for third- to fifth-grade students in Palm Beach County School District Title I elementary schools called Zoo School. This weeklong, on-site school program, or extended field trip, literally takes the classroom to the zoo, where the zoo’s mission merges with the class’s curriculum.

   “We developed the Zoo School curriculum with daily lesson plans and activities to tailor to each class,” says Kristen Cytacki, director of education and sustainability. “We meet with the teachers before their visit to discuss whatever challenges the class might be facing, like math or writing, and then match that with a creative and engaging lesson that utilizes the zoo to help strengthen them in those key subject areas.”

North Grade Elementary School taking in the sights at the Palm Beach Zoo during their weeklong fieldtrip, Zoo School.

North Grade Elementary School taking in the sights at the Palm Beach Zoo during their weeklong fieldtrip, Zoo School.

   Zoo School began in the spring of 2013 with a small pilot program to gauge feasibility and student/teacher response. The zoo welcomed 138 students into the program that semester with such success that the program was green-lighted for entirety of the 2013-14 school year. Running concurrently with the county school calendar, Zoo School can viewed as a branch of the public school system: All lesson plans and activities are tailored to Common Core and Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine Standards, with a focus in STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The interdisciplinary curriculum also follows the scope and sequence for science followed by the school district throughout the year. Lesson plans and professional development pieces for teachers have been submitted and approved by the school district, making for dynamic learning opportunities for students and instructors.

   “Teachers can use the entirety of our curriculum or bring in their own lessons and activities,” Cytacki says, “though I would say 95 percent use ours. It’s very high quality and interdisciplinary.”

Zoo School at the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society - Dissecting an Owl Pellet

Zoo School students dissect owl pellets. Called “nature’s treasure chests” by Cytacki, this activity helps teach students about the physiology and anatomy of the birds of prey as well as a lesson in the food chain.

   “Animals can’t speak to us, so we have to observe them, and there is a lot that we can learn from what they leave behind,” Cytacki says. “[Students] are kind of like nature detectives.”

   The breakdown, though catered differently to each class, follows a similar routine: Students and teachers arrive at the zoo on a private charter paid for by the zoo, head to the on-site classroom and begin their day at Zoo School. Activities include dissecting owl pellets, visiting the state-of-the-art LEED-certified animal hospital to observe veterinarians in action, making animal observations and encounters, participating in role-playing activities and attending lectures with zoo staff. The curriculum covers plenty, with animals and environment peppered throughout coursework, but reading, writing and art are also incorporated into the activities. Students are pre- and post-tested so the zoo can monitor the knowledge gains achieved in the week on campus, while teacher evaluations help keep the program fluid and ever-evolving. Students are also given parent evaluation forms to take home, offering the zoo feedback that goes beyond the school program itself.

   “These give us insight in what the children are learning but also helps us get a better understanding of what families may or may not be doing to help the environment, like recycling, carpooling, buying organic food products,” Cytacki says. This information is vital to the development and evolution of the zoo’s overall programing and outreach, giving them new marks to aim for—an important tool for a zoo with Palm Beach’s geography.


Head to page two for more on the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society's Zoo School.

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February 2015