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A Century of Learning

Despite the Education Department’s growth spurt in the 1990s, it had very little space for camps and classes. Many summer camps were held in trailers on the Zoo’s farm for much of this decade. In the late 1980s, the department’s offices moved to a building on the farm where the Zoo’s library is now located.  By 1998, about 218,700 people were reached by Zoological Society education programs – at the Zoo, in Wisconsin schools and libraries, at Milwaukee-area festivals (see Care for Critters program) and in other countries.The Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center, built as part of the New Zoo II Capital Campaign in 2004, was a necessary and welcome addition. After the move, the department changed its name to Conservation Education to better reflect its modern-day mission: 

“What we wanted to reflect in the programs was environment stewardship. Our department’s responsibility is to embed conservation messages, and add to the conservation emphasis of the Zoo,” says Dawn St. George.

ZSM Education Staff - 2004

The ZSM’s Education Department staff, including several summer interns, posed in front of the newly built Karen Peck Katz Conservation Department in 2004.

The spacious new building allowed the department to reach more schools in Milwaukee County. Schools were eager for more science-based programs, but the programs needed to meet state standards. So school program curriculums were aligned to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction standards. After the new building opened, the department also began providing classroom-based outreach programs to schools.

“We based the school programs on our wildly popular summer camps. We realized we could provide education experiences that were aligned to state standards and that had a conservation message, but that also had fun and playtime and crafts,” says St. George.

Education Creatures

A girl shows off an owl project in a Zoological Society class about nocturnal animals.

The variety and scope of Zoological Society education programs expanded in the 1990s and the first part of the new century:

  • The Animal Ambassador program for fourth-graders expanded to reach second and third grades.
  • Thanks to an anonymous donor, children attending Milwaukee-area neighborhood youth centers could come to summer camps and classes (in 2009, seven centers and nearly 500 kids participated).
  • The ZSM developed a full curriculum guide to its Birds Without Borders-Aves Sin Fronteras program (click here for more information about this research-education-conservation project) and had ongoing programs in Wisconsin and some Michigan schools as well as in Belize schools. ZSM instructors even went to Belize to train Belizeans in how to teach the program themselves.
    Belize & Beyond

    Students in Belize pretend their arms are wings and measure them. Zoological Society instructors traveled to Belize to teach the class. Photo by Zoological Society staff.

  • A program called Belize & Beyond, which ran from 2004 to 2006, gave high school students a chance to win an eco-themed trip to the Central American country by participating in a conservation essay contest.
    Belize & Beyond

    ZSM educators and students visit Belize in 2004. Photo by Kerry Scanlan.

  • ZSM educators travel directly to schools in southeastern Wisconsin (within a 40-mile radius from the Zoo) to present animal-science programs to schoolchildren. These fee-based programs often include live-animal presentations with creatures such as hedgehogs and turtles.
James Mills

James Mills

Today, ZSM programs serve kids ages 2 to 14 February-December. At least 200,000 people are reached every year by Zoological Society education programs, both in Wisconsin and in other countries. (That number is down from 2004 and earlier, when the ZSM’s Care for Critters free educational programs were reaching thousands of people annually. The number of people taught in classes at the Zoo has increased, however.) Over the years, the department has developed age-appropriate programs for each age group based on education psychology and a growing understanding of different learning styles, says James Mills, education director since 2006. Reaching even more people to help them grow in their appreciation and understanding of animals and nature is the department’s goal, adds Mills.

“Conservation education is about promoting nature in all its diversity, while sensitizing people to how humans benefit from and depend on wildlife, as well as to how human activities can damage nature and endanger species.”

Dr. Bert speaking to an Animal Ambassador group

Dr. Robert Davis takes school kids on an impromptu Zoo tour.

At a time when animals are becoming endangered and the environment is changing, education programs will be key to the success of zoos in the 21st century, adds Dr. Robert Davis, the ZSM’s president. His own professional background is in conservation education in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo and Zoo Atlanta. Dr. Davis, who grew up fascinated by educational animal programs on TV, notes: A childhood interest in animal science can create a generation of conservationists. The Zoological Society of Milwaukee can proudly point to two generations of people who have been taking our classes at the Milwaukee County Zoo since the 1970s.

Story by Julia Kolker and Paula Brookmire.
Photos by Zoological Society of Milwaukee/Richard Brodzeller, unless otherwise indicated.

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