Virtual Zoo Trip Inspires Design Project

Virtual Zoo Trip Inspires Design Project

As Meredith Hegarty kicked off her seventh grade science classes this fall, she knew they would be part of the STEAM curriculum, which meant she couldn’t simply teach scientific theory. She had to find a way for students to apply their knowledge to the real world.

What’s a science teacher to do? Well, go to the zoo, naturally.

Hegarty started off the classes by assigning her students—learning both in person and virtually—to go (digitally) to the San Diego Zoo, which offers visitors the chance to watch live footage from webcams stationed in the enclosures of various animals. 

Each of Hegarty’s students could choose from among platypuses, baboons, polar bears, penguins, giraffes, and burrowing owls. 

“I wanted to tie it into the curriculum. Seventh grade is life science, so that meant studying animal kingdom,” Hegarty said. “Students had to observe the animals and choose one to focus on. They had to study the animal’s behavior.”

She said the most popular choice was the polar bears, possibly because they were especially active on the first day.

Once students made their choice, they were tasked with studying the animals and then brainstorming concepts to create an enrichment item—essentially, something to give the animals additional mental or physical stimulation in captivity. Such items are crucial for captive animals, who don’t have to hunt or fight to survive as they would in the wild.

The classes then met virtually with zoo experts as they began to develop their ideas. One class held a virtual session with Dr. Tara Stoinski, a Woodward parent and the CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a conservation and research organization.

“She answered questions about primates and helped the students compare captivity to wild,” Hegarty said.

Students also were able to meet virtually with experts from Winter Construction, the company that recently completed the African Savanna expansion at Zoo Atlanta. Representatives were able to tell students about the practical concerns related to planning out a project at a zoo.

“Seventh grade spends a lot of time on process skills, how to use scientific inquiry to examine a problem. With this design project, what they’re doing right now is talking about user testing,” Hegarty said. “They’re coming up with a plan of how they can test their invention and check its value.”

Hegarty spoke about the project on the last day for students to build the devices they’d designed. Students had a range of devices, everything from a cooled back-scratcher for polar bears to a robot for predators to chase. They’ve used a 3-D printer and robotics, among other resources.

The students also go through a peer review process, and she said her job was to stand back and let them talk to each other about their designs.

“It’s always so interesting,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges is trying not to force feed an idea. I tell them, ‘You’re creative and have a way of thinking about this that professionals don’t have.’

“I’m really excited,” Hegarty said. “We just got into the first chapter of our textbook, and it starts with Jane Goodall observing gorillas in the wild. And I said, ‘Hey, guys, you just did this.’”