On-site Learning at the Zoo
Corina Rahmig, High School Faculty 

By Corina Rahmig, High School Science Faculty 

If you ask me what animals I’d want to observe at the zoo, I’d enthusiastically answer gorillas, meerkats, and lemurs; however, this trip to the zoo wasn’t about me!  

As the culminating project for a unit on behavioral ecology, students in Biology 2 went to Woodland Park Zoo to conduct animal behavior experiments. Students spent several weeks learning about evolutionary causes of behaviors, types of learning, social behaviors and ecological consequences of behaviors. Throughout the unit, the students also learned methods behavioral ecologists use to study behaviors through observation. They practiced these techniques in the classroom by watching videos of animals and coding their behaviors and observing live mealworms to determine habitat and food preferences.  

Students also chose an animal at Woodland Park Zoo on which to develop a research project. Groups researched their focal species, came up with a research question and proposed a study method to collect data through observation. Much to my dismay, no group chose gorillas, meercats or lemurs to study! 

The class packed up clipboards, data sheets and timers, and set out to the zoo. One group headed to the Asian Small-Clawed Otter exhibit to determine whether the animals spend more time on land or in the water. After arriving at the exhibit, the students were disappointed to find the otters inactive on the crisp fall day. Instead of throwing in the towel, the students quickly modified their research plan and trekked across the zoo to the River Otter exhibit. They were thrilled to see the animals actively using their enclosure.  

Koko Uyeda, a Senior, reflected on the experience by stating she enjoyed “watching [her] experiment pan out.” She also said that she “learned that experiments do not always go as planned and although it is hard to adjust, it is possible.” This flexibility to adjust a plan on the fly is an important science skill, as research with live animals rarely transpire exactly as planned.  

A second group brought their prepared data sheets to the Humboldt Penguin exhibit, ready to investigate the relationship between different vocalizations and behaviors. After several minutes of observation, it became clear they weren’t going to witness the variety of vocalizations needed to address their research question. This group, too, had to think on their feet and changed their research question to study the types of social behaviors penguins exhibit on land versus in the water. Caroline Shoemaker valued the experience because “we got to experience first-hand how to properly collect data through observation of animal behavior and interaction.”  

The final group enthusiastically approached the Australasia exhibit and were thrilled to see four wallabies jumping, eating leaves and snoozing in the sun. Their research project to study whether the normally solitary animals are social in a zoo setting went off without a hitch, and the Ella Hikes appreciated the chance to “do real-life observations of animals under a certain condition to answer a question.” 

After an hour or so of focused data collection, the students enjoyed exploring other exhibits at the zoo. The learning didn’t stop at this point! After observing hippos, lemurs, giraffes and meerkats, Mariana Morales noticed that “each animal we visited exhibited different behavior.” Cindy Zhang commented that “the vast majority of the animals we saw frequently groom themselves or each other,” hypothesizing that “this behavior is common because [they] are more like to survive to produce offspring who also have the genetically [coded] habit of grooming.”  

While I never made it to the gorillas, the learning, collaboration and problem-solving that I witnessed among the students more than made up for my mild disappointment of missing one of my favorite exhibits at the zoo. 

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