Senior shares insight into a unique educational option at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

By Elizabeth Tzagournis, ’13

Zoo School students study various animals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, such as this Western lowland gorilla. Research projects have also included studies involving silver langurs and leopards, according to Richards.

African elephants and Emperor penguins surround senior Sydney Richard’s classroom. In the distance manatees munch on heads of lettuce while 100-year-old sea turtles glide through the water. Although UA has yet to adopt a zoo-themed environment, Richards has enjoyed this atmosphere during her first quarter at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Zoo School.

During the junior and senior years of high school, students enroll in fewer required courses. This allows for students to partake in more classes of which they have a genuine interest. Richard’s interest in biology and life sciences has been taken to the next level through Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Zoo School 1. According to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium website, the program is “designed to give high school juniors and seniors a greater insight and understanding of the excitement and demands of science”.Additionally, the program is “zoology driven, research focused, rich in the use of technology and application based.”

Richards’ involvement in the course requires her to attend classes and engage in lab work at the zoo every afternoon.

“It’s technically an extension of the Delaware Area Career Center which is kind of like Fort Hayes. It’s a research-based program that focuses on life sciences, so we take Zoology class there and we take AP Statistics class,” Richards said. “We take what we learn and apply it to our own research projects that we do during the day. We study the animals and their behavior.”

The full curriculum includes two programs: Zoo 1 and Zoo 2. Zoo 1 is the entrance-level course while Zoo 2 is the second year course that further expands on principles learned while in Zoo 1, such as research methods and applied science technologies.

According to Richards, each level has around 25 students, with students able to begin the application process as early as their sophomore years to start as juniors. In order to gain acceptance into Zoo School there are prerequisites and certain steps prospective students must accomplish.

“[The process] consisted of a couple of essays, we had to write about ourselves and why would we be qualified,” Richards said. “We had to submit one of our unofficial transcripts and we also had to do a test to see where we’re at in biology and basic math.”

Additionally students must have already taken Biology and Algebra courses as well as complete the Zoo Research School application and the Dublin Area Career Center application. Richards admitted the process was extensive, but she is very happy with her decision to enter the school.

“It’s an awesome program and I’m really glad I did it,” Richards said. “I definitely think that if you’re interested in life sciences or Zoology or you just want to work at a zoo for a half day [you should consider it]. It’s really fun and it’s a lot of hard work but worth it.”

Richards said the hard work comes in the form of taking both classes and undertaking research-driven projects during her afternoons at the Zoo School. A typical day consists of class time in either Zoology or AP Statistics while the second half is reserved for student fieldwork.

“We go out into the zoo and do our research projects,” she said. “[We] take notes on the animals, take data and at the end of all of it we take all of our data, analyze it and try to draw some conclusions.”

One study Richards investigated explored the silver langur, an animal similar to monkeys, and if weather conditions affected their activity level or behavior.

“I got to go out of the classroom everyday for about an hour and observe my animal, measure data [such as] how langurs were exhibiting active behavior versus nonactive behavior,” Richards said. “Unfortunately, I found no relationship between weather and activitity [but] it was a good experience… it was a really good starting point in the field of research, where sometimes you find something and sometimes you don’t.”

Richards believes one of the most rewarding aspects of her focused curriculum is the applicability in and around the zoo.

“It’s really cool to be able to have a more focused program on what I would like to do with my future. It motivates me to learn more because a lot of the stuff we learn in Zoology and Statistics is applicable to our research projects and future research we might want to do,” she said. “People always ask, ‘when are we going to use this?’ and then in Zoo School I know.”

The environment is highly focused and specialized compared to similar life science courses Richards may have chosen within the high school since UAHS does not have the surrounding environment to supplement the classroom learning. This focus and increased personalized experience is another reason why Richards has found gratification within the program.

“I really enjoy that I can walk out of the classroom and see a polar bear; who else can say that?” Richards said. “I [also] enjoy the close-knit atmosphere of a good relationship with the teacher, since we only have two classes and we have the same teachers everyday. It definitely helps with communication, and just the overall atmosphere is a lot more personal.”

The small class size and increased attention make for closer relationships not only with the teachers but other students involved in the program. Richards said that since she is the only student from UA she feels the opportunity to meet people and make lasting friendships has been one of the most rewarding aspects.

“It was really refreshing to go into it not really knowing anyone or what exactly the program consisted of, [and] I found a lot of meaning in figuring it out,” Richards said. “It’s cool to meet people who share your same interests… [My favorite part about the program is] definitely the people. I love them, we’re all so close.”

The new friendships and research all reinforced Richards’ decision to enroll in Zoo School and focus on her specialized education path. Richards said that science was never an easy class for her but Zoo School made the content more accessible and she has gained confidence and satisfaction from the challenge. Richards’ motivation to succeed in her research and continue in her pursuit of a unique out-of-the-class experience has positively impacted her senior year.

“Science was always a class that challenged me, but I think now I’ve found kind of an appreciation for that challenge. I think that’s what motivates me a lot more to pursue that – because it’s exciting to be challenged,” she said. “Now I can find meaning in that, which is really cool. [Zoo School] definitely helped me get excited about what I want to do, hopefully biology, in the future.”

Zoo School student Josh Courtney observes and takes notes on the behavior and activity of polar bears. Students receive research assignments from zoo staff for their end-of-the-year projects.