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ZooCrew middle schoolers discover their inner scientist

Posted by: Ryan Driscoll, Education

Western Washington is known for its amazing outdoor opportunities. This summer, participants in the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program took full advantage of those opportunities to sharpen their science skills and explore the ecosystems around the Puget Sound. From hiking Mount Rainier to working with local field biologists, students examined the different parts of the watershed while learning about how humans and animals interact with their environments.

This cultural access program is about more than just exposing students to new careers and building their science skills—it is about our mission to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders. We want youth to see themselves as scientists and to understand not only that there are issues in our area, but that they can help to investigate and solve them.

At the top of a watershed hiking Mount Rainier.

Over two four-week sessions this summer, 18 6th and 7th grade students from Asa Mercer, Washington, Madison and Denny Middle Schools explored animal behaviors, local ecosystems, and science careers through the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program, Woodland Park Zoo’s middle school outreach program. The ZooCrew Summer Learning Program is a free program funded by the Families & Education Levy through the City of Seattle Department of Early Learning. During the program, students participated in nature explorations, conducted animal investigations, met and worked with STEM professionals, participated in leadership and team building activities, and practiced reading, writing, math and science. This summer, students not only explored and learned at the zoo, but also traveled all over western Washington exploring watersheds!

Week One 

We started the summer with an overnight trip to Sound View Retreat on the Key Peninsula. At Sound View, we learned how to make detailed observations of the natural world, got to canoe and kayak in the Sound, participated in some team building challenges, and even made some s’mores! We returned from camp ready to dive into Washington’s ecosystems with a visit to the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, where we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of our local watershed.

One of the best ways to learn about the importance of water is to hang out on it.

Week Two

ZooCrew students worked their way from the top to the bottom of the watershed. We visited Mount Rainier to examine the glaciers that provide water for much of Western Washington (and to see some awesome wildlife). We worked with field biologist Michelle Wainstein, a partner in the zoo’s Living Northwest conservation projects, to learn about otters in our area and what they can tell us about the streams and rivers in the middle of the watershed.

ZooCrew students collect otter scat for later analysis.

As we worked our way towards the bottom of the watershed, we visited the Ballard Locks to explore the impacts of human structures like locks and dams as well as to learn how salmon use the different parts of the watershed in their life cycles. We also visited the University of Washington to learn about the impacts of climate as well as the diversity of marine life in the Puget Sound with a special tour of the Ichthyology collection from curator Katherine Maslenikov.

It isn’t always hard work! Time for a funny picture at the Ballard Locks.

Learning about the importance of research collections at the UW Ichthyology collection.

Week Three

We focused on the impacts that humans have on the watershed and how we can help to reduce them. We started the week by touring the Brightwater Water Treatment Plant and learning about how our waste is cleaned and recycled. We also visited the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge to learn how nature cleans its water and how to survey birds. We ended the week at the Seattle Aquarium where we learned about the factors that impact Puget Sound and the aquatic animals that inhabit it.

Learning how to survey for birds at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge.

During these weeks, we weren’t always off zoo grounds! We took advantage of the amazing animals at the zoo to keep sharpening our investigation and observations skills. We learned about barn swallow research from lead keeper Gretchen Albrecht and volunteer Anna Martin, and we got a peek into the Raptor Barn so we could help spread information about how to help them by making some raptor trading cards. We continued to develop our observation skills and learned how to create comparative questions and design our own procedures to answer them by doing animal investigations around the zoo. These skills become really useful as we applied them in the field at the Ballard Locks, Seattle Aquarium, and for our final project.

Investigating if the river otters spend more time in the water than the Asian small-clawed otters.

Week Four

In our final week, the students divided into groups and created their own investigations comparing the heavily populated Green Lake Park to the less impacted Seward Park. Students investigated the quality of the water, the diversity of birds, and human impacts like the amount of trash on the ground and the numbers of dogs in each park. They spent the final days putting together posters and practicing presentations for our culminating family night.

Testing the water quality for Green Lake and Lake Washington.

Throughout the summer, students also had an opportunity to meet scientists, observe them at work, and ask questions about their career paths. These career expeditions were full of exciting, hands-on experiences: making a cloud in a bottle with University of Washington climatologists, seeing how field biologists collect information from camera traps and scat collecting with Michelle Wainstein, chatting with a state biologist at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, and discussing marine biology careers at the Seattle Aquarium. By the end of the summer, several students were talking about wanting to be zoologists, biologists and field conservationists when they grow up.

Learning what is involved in taking care of all the marine life at the aquarium. 

The final day of the program was full of reflections and celebrations. Students took time to reflect individually and as a group while enjoying the beaches at Golden Gardens and Carkeek Park. Students shared their favorite memories, the challenges they had faced, and the lessons they learned over the summer. One student wrote “I will always smile at the endless cards games we did and the laughter that we always had with us. The team building challenges that we struggled with taught us a lesson that sometimes you have to have a few arguments along the way to figure out the answer. As I look at myself now, I realize just how much I’ve grown in spirit and just how much I’ve gone through to get where I am now.” After celebrating their growth and new friendships, they prepared for the ZooCrew family night. Parents and siblings came to the zoo for tours led by the students followed by presentations of their project posters. Students even fielded tough questions from their parents and zoo staff about what their procedures, conclusions, and what they had learned.

ZooCrew students present their final project poster at family night.

For the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program students, the learning and exploring is not over. All of the students are invited to participate in the ZooCrew afterschool program at their schools, which starts in the fall.

Thanks to all who helped make the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program a success! We are looking forward to the ZooCrew school year and future summers ahead!