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Earn your Master's with Woodland Park Zoo

Posted by: Jenny Mears, Education

Interested in pursuing your degree through the Advanced Inquiry Program? Join us for an informational forum on November 13.

Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) 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 ground-breaking graduate degree focused on inquiry-driven learning as a powerful agent for social change, public engagement, and ecological stewardship. Woodland Park Zoo is one of eight institutions across the country that offers the AIP Master’s. The first AIP cohort started in 2011 (and graduated last December!) and students have already reported positive changes in their personal and professional lives. We asked Kate Marcussen, AIP graduate student and a Woodland Park Zoo Education Program Presenter, to illustrate the impact that this program has had on her life.

Oriental pied hornbills observed by Kate Marcussen while studying with the Hornbill Research Foundation on her Thailand Earth Expedition. Photo: Kate Marcussen

WPZ: Why did you apply to the Advanced Inquiry Program?
After completing my undergraduate degree, I knew that I wanted to further my education, but I also wanted to get out into the field and my community, and out of a classroom. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take with my Master’s and the Advanced Inquiry Program offered so many options. My goal was to work within zoos and what better place to learn than the zoo itself? The AIP would allow me to receive my Master’s degree through hands-on experiences utilizing the zoo and field experience as my classroom, while also taking online academic courses through Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  The part-time program also fit well with being able to work while in graduate school, which was the perfect package for an aspiring educator!

I applied for the AIP three months prior to graduating from undergrad, and nowhere else. I was so determined to get into this amazing program that I moved from California up to Seattle before I received an acceptance letter. Thankfully, I was accepted!

Kate Marcussen, Advanced Inquiry Program graduate student, in Thailand on an Earth Expedition field course.
Photo courtesy of Kate Marcussen.

WPZ: What impact has the program had on you personally and professionally?
The Advanced Inquiry Program took me in directions I never imagined. I started off with a love for zoos and appreciation for their passion for conservation and education, but with an unclear idea of where to go with my education. Through my AIP course work I learned and experienced a tremendous amount that enabled me to find my niche in the zoo world. I found my passion for education within informal institutions such as the zoo. One of my most meaningful experiences through the AIP was an internship within the zoo’s Audience Research department. During this internship I set out to look at the nature of interaction between zoo volunteers and visitors and the extent to which learning was occurring. This opportunity provided me with skills such as research development and implementation; it also allowed me to learn more about something that I valued professionally which was visitor education. The AIP clearly allowed me to advance my personal and professional goals. 

The Advanced Inquiry Program has also helped me grow tremendously as a Woodland Park Zoo educator. Teaching a variety of programs, classes, and camps to audiences such as school groups, families, and children, the AIP has provided me with strong skills in order facilitate engaging interactions and meaningful experiences. My confidence as an educator has grown as the program continues; supporting my skills in visitor engagement through inquiry-based techniques as well as rounding out my knowledge of current conservation and environmental issues.

Thailand Earth Expedition graduate students hiking through Khao Yai National Park during their field course.
Photo: Kate Marcussen

My travel with the AIP to Thailand this past summer provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were fortunate to learn firsthand about hornbill conservation efforts from Hornbill Research Foundation, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife conservation program. Following local hornbill researchers through the forests and seeing these magnificent birds in the wild provided me with firsthand knowledge about hornbill conservation to share with zoo visitors. We were lucky to see elephants, gibbons, and wild dogs all in their natural habitat, and we learned about current conservation issues facing the national parks of Thailand from the local park rangers and managers. 

We also spent a significant amount of time living and interacting with the local Buddhist community, learning about the deeply intertwined conservation and environmental appreciation that they have in their daily lifestyle. Their lives are intensely connected with the natural world, from the food that they eat to the wood in the roofs over their heads. I returned from Thailand with a renewed appreciation for the natural world, and a deeper understanding that conservation is not just a word or a single action; it is a lifestyle and state of mind. 

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