In the Bronx, a class with conservation at its core
At the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the zoo is more than a field trip – and fieldwork covers topics from temperate forests to river turbidity.
When Elijah Maderon attended a class at the Bronx Zoo in January, he and his fellow sixth-graders gave presentations on how they might protect peregrine falcons from the pesticide DDT if they were conservationists on a tight budget.Skip to next paragraph
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Inspired by the activity, Elijah quickly prepared a proposal afterward. With the silver tongue of an experienced entrepreneur, he described a video game to an intrigued teacher. Called Zoo Tycoon, the game allows players to work within a budget to build and maintain a zoo with the goals of ensuring its animals' health and happiness while still turning a profit. The game, Elijah maintained, would fit right in with his school's curriculum.
That kind of thinking is encouraged at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation (UASWC) in the Bronx, where Elijah and 148 other students represent the inaugural class. This is one of 19 themed-curricula public schools throughout New York City funded partly by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
At UASWC, wildlife conservation is integrated throughout core subject areas. Through partnerships with organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society and its flagship institution, the Bronx Zoo, students are given access to resources and professionals in the wildlife-conservation field beyond the reach of most graduate schools.
With plant and animal species becoming endangered or extinct at an alarming rate, and increasing pressure to address global warming, the United States needs science and wildlife conservation specialists. At the same time, middle school science proficiency scores have plateaued, with overall scores at the high school level declining since 1996, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"There is real concern that there may not be enough kids coming through schools in the US to meet our needs in science and math 15 years from now," says James Hennessy, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University in New York City.
Mark Ossenheimer, principal of UASWC, hopes his school – which will also serve as a high school in coming years – has set out to address this problem. "We aim to create generations of urban ecologists," he says. "Even if they do not enter into a science field, they will be well versed in the relevant issues and systems of conservation science."
UASWC meets government education standards while also engaging students through the allure of the natural world. The sixth-grade Wildlife Conservation class, for example, is essentially an ecology course. Subsequent classes will focus on topics such as animal behavior and zoo-exhibit design.
Universities forge partnerships with conservation groups
American universities are launching partnerships with wildlife-conservation groups, both hoping to tap into each other's resources and prepare future ecoexperts.
Beginning this May, Fordham University's Graduate School of Education and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) will jointly offer a master's in education degree in "Adolescent Biology / Conservation Life Science." Half of the teacher candidates' fieldwork will occur in New York City public schools and half at the Bronx Zoo.
The Smithsonian Institution and Virginia's George Mason University (GMU) just kicked off a semester-long program allowing undergraduate students to live at the Conservation and Research Center of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Students will study under prominent scientists, conduct research on endangered species housed on-site, and explore how civic action can shape public policy.
With an almost missionary flair, James Hennessy, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham, describes his hope that graduates will spread out into urban middle and high schools across the United States, bringing their enthusiasm for conservation and a hands-on, inquiry-based method with them. Both schools' programs emphasize experiential learning.
"There is a growing recognition in academia and science that immersion in research and learning are best," says Tom Wood, director of the Mason Center for Conservation Studies. "Civic engagement and science must intersect to reform education and public policy."
Fordham and GMU are currently in talks with other conservation and natural-history organizations about future partnerships.