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Earn your Master’s degree with the zoo

Posted by: Jenny Mears, Education

Woodland Park Zoo has teamed up with Project Dragonfly from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to offer the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP), an exciting Master’s program for a broad range of environmental and education professionals, including classroom teachers, zoo and aquarium professionals, and informal educators. The AIP offers a groundbreaking graduate degree focused on inquiry-driven learning as a powerful agent for social change, public engagement, and ecological stewardship. Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) is one of seven institutions across the country that offers the AIP Master’s. The first AIP cohort at WPZ started in 2011 and students have already reported positive changes in their personal and professional lives. We asked Sabrina Hetland, a West Mercer Elementary kindergarten teacher and member of that cohort, to illustrate the impact that this program has had on her teaching, her students, and her life.

Sabrina (left) and fellow graduate student Kim Bigham observe the orb weaving spider in WPZ's Bug World during an AIP course.

WPZ: Why did you apply to the Advanced Inquiry Program?
Sabrina: I’d wanted to get my Master’s to fill the weakness in my teaching, but I wasn’t sure what direction to go. I loved science but it wasn’t my strong point. I never understood it in school because I didn’t have teachers that taught in a way that was best for me. I had wanted to do my undergrad in biology in college, but it was all lecture-based. I had a hard time being successful, so I changed majors and decided to teach. My goal became to be a more engaging science teacher than my science teachers were. This program was perfect. It would take my weakness and make it my strength. I love the zoo, I had always loved animals, and National Geographic was a magazine I idolized. It was also a Master’s degree that I was able to afford and it sounded like a fun path to take.

Sabrina in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo.

WPZ: What impact has the program had on your teaching?
Sabrina: I have learned more effective ways of teaching science, ways that allow children to tap into their natural curiosity, and let them learn by exploring. I changed the way that I present, question, and answer, and not just in science but across the curriculum! I am helping to empower kids to be in charge of their learning. AIP has also helped me start connecting kids with the environment, which I’d always wanted to do, but had run short of ideas. This gave me a starting point with a new passion. We could be in the environment, making observations, and enhancing learning as well as getting kids excited about nature. It has also helped me be in more of a leadership role (which is outside my comfort zone!) with colleagues, my school, and now my district. There is a shift in science happening and it’s the perfect time to be doing what I’m doing. With STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for example, this program is preparing me for what’s coming. Also, this program has given me the opportunity to travel to Borneo [through an Earth Expeditions field course] as part of my coursework and witness breathtaking scenes and animals. I got to interact with amazing and unique plant and animal species that make up the rainforests of Borneo. I was able to follow researchers from around the world as they collected data and also conducted my own inquiry study in the jungle. I met many friendly and unforgettable people that have forever changed my life. I also connected with another kindergarten teacher in the village of Sukau and we were able to plan a pen pal program to connect our students in a global sense to learn from each other. I have been able to bring back my experiences in Borneo and incorporate them into topics ranging from Writer’s Workshop, reading, social studies, and science.

Class assignment comparing the preferred nesting sites of hornbills vs. chickens, by one of Sabrina’s kindergarten students.

WPZ: What impact has this program had on your students?
Sabrina: My students have been a lot more observant of the world around them. Their great observations now lead to good questions. From there, we think about questions we can test as a class. The more kids can be inquisitive and can take charge of what they’re learning. They’re also more connected to the natural world and are more interested in nature. We take observation walks, or sit in the courtyard and observe. I hear very observant questions in our class discussion, questions that are meaningful and important to them. They also show a lot more care and respect for what’s outside in nature. For example, the kids found an ant and were really concerned about protecting that ant! I also now give homework to sit outside and write about what is in their backyards. I’ve noticed that their knowledge of what’s there is a lot stronger!

Due to my travels to Borneo, my students have a sense of where Borneo is on a map and the amazing animals that are located within. After a lesson on the beautiful hornbill, the students were able to identify this bird and find similarities and differences with a chicken. They had a growing curiosity with the island of Borneo and have had great excitement to start learning from their pen pals in the village of Sukau.

Want to know more?
Sign up for a digital information session! Join other prospective students from around Puget Sound to learn more about this Master’s degree opportunity.

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Unknown said…
Well out of all of the Masters of Education Programs this one has to be the most interesting. Obtaining a Masters through the zoo?! Incredible idea, I love the zoo and I love animals. What a cool and great idea!