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Coexisting with Carnivores: Middle School Students Become Citizen Scientists

Posted by Kelly Lindmark, Education

Coyote picture captured by a camera trap as part of a student research project.  Photo: Issaquah School District and Woodland Park Zoo.
Woodland Park Zoo is on a new mission, to save wildlife and inspire everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives. We think that starts right here, in the Pacific Northwest, where we are working with Issaquah School District 6th grade Life Science students and teachers to investigate local carnivores and use their findings to make recommendations for peaceful coexistence to their community.

Wild Wise: Coexisting with Carnivores offers students a chance to develop their science inquiry, civic literacy and leadership skills as they investigate solutions for living with the carnivores in their communities. This spring, students and teachers at five Issaquah middle schools worked with zoo educators to develop and carry out scientific investigations of local carnivoresblack bears, bobcats, coyotes, cougars and raccoonsand how these species are meeting their needs in the landscape we share. In June, student groups from across the school district came together to share their investigation findings and recommendations with their community. Here’s a peek into their work this past spring:

Learning from the Community

Students began their projects by gathering information on carnivore sightings in their community by asking their families, friends and neighbors for their observations. By plotting these sightings on a map, students were able to look for patterns and ask questions about how carnivores are using natural and human-made landscape features to meet their needs.

Community map of local carnivore sightings from Pine Lake Middle School. Photo: Kelly Lindmark/Woodland Park Zoo.

Pacific Northwest Carnivore Program at Woodland Park Zoo

In March, students visited Woodland Park Zoo for two programs with zoo staff. While exploring the Northern Trail, students learned about Pacific Northwest carnivores including brown bears, black bears and gray wolves. In the multimedia, interactive Wild Wise program, students learned about the wildland-urban interface, human-carnivore interactions across the landscape, and research methods they could use for their upcoming projects. 

Beaver Lake Middle School students touring the Northern Trail. Photos: Emily Felty/Woodland Park Zoo.

Turning Questions into Investigations

With their zoo exploration and community data in mind, each class generated a comparative investigation question about how carnivores are using the surrounding landscape. With the support of their teachers and zoo staff, each class planned research methods to gather the data needed to answer their question. This year, classes chose a variety of methods including camera traps (cameras with infrared and motion triggers to capture pictures of wildlife), online surveys, community mapping, and walking surveys to look for signs of carnivores and their prey.
Zoo staff facilitate a discussion of methods with students.  Photo: Emily Gogerty-Northrip/Woodland Park Zoo.

Western Wildlife Outreach Trailer Visit

Western Wildlife Outreach (WWO) is a local non-profit promoting increased understanding of large carnivores through education and community outreach. WWO brought their Carnivore Outreach Education Trailer to each school, where students explored biofacts such as pelts and skulls, heard tips for coexisting with different carnivores, and asked WWO staff questions to help with their ongoing research projects.  

WWO Carnivore Trailer Visit at Pine Lake Middle School.  Photo by Alicia Highland/Woodland Park Zoo.

Reviewing Results and Sharing with the Community

After data collection was completed, students worked in small groups to discuss, analyze, and interpret their data. Based on their findings, student groups identified the key takeaways and actionable recommendations for community members and prepared posters and presentations to share their projects with zoo staff and the community. Zoo staff visited each class to hear the final results from each group.

On June 6th, students, teachers, families, and community members came together for an All School Event showcasing student projects. During a poster session, students shared their posters and answered questions about their projects. Eleven student groups were selected to represent their schools and gave presentations about their research process, findings and recommendations to their community. 

Student projects included investigations of carnivore use of hiking trails, interactions between carnivores and trash cans, and carnivores interact with household gardens. One student group investigated whether carnivores are seen more often in newer or older neighborhoods. Their data showed that carnivores were seen more often in older neighborhoods, so their recommendations were focused for residents of these older neighborhoods to engage in proactive behaviors such as keeping a bear bell on outdoor pets, keeping trash indoors and learning what to do if you encounter a carnivore.

Students shared posters and presentations with the community at the June All School Event.  Photo: Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

All told, over 175 projects were created this spring! While learning more about local carnivores, students developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for these species. Throughout their research process, students gained real-world experience with a variety of scientific practices including asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating their findings. Finally, students leveraged their new expertise to be a voice for peaceful human-wildlife coexistence in their community.

We would like to thank the students and educators for their thoughtful investigations, dedication and creativity with their projects. We are grateful for the generous support of the Issaquah Schools Foundation, the Institute of Museums and Library Services: Museums of America program and Carter Subaru that make this program possible. We would also like to thank The Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, the James Lea Foundation and the Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund for their support of this project. 

Wild Wise: Coexisting with Carnivores is part of the larger Coexisting with Carnivores program, a collaboration between Woodland Park Zoo and the City of Issaquah that provides Issaquah residents with opportunities to appreciate local carnivores and the practices that can make coexistence easier—both for people living in the community, and the animals that call Issaquah home. Look out for Coexisting with Carnivores events in Issaquah this year, and come chat with Woodland Park Zoo staff at the Issaquah Farmer's Market on September 15 and 22 to learn more.