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The ZooCrew Zoo: Middle School Youth Dive Into Exhibit Design

Posted by Ryan Driscoll, Education

Editor's note: Through the ZooCrew programs, we invite youth from traditionally underserved communities to dive into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects by engaging with real-world conservation issues, preparing them for continued involvement in Woodland Park Zoo’s youth programs, and inspire them to consider a broad range of STEM and conservation careers. This story is a peek into our 2018 summer ZooCrew learning session. 

This summer, the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program let the students pick the theme and explored the world of zoos and aquariums through the lens of exhibit design.  Over two four-week sessions this summer, 25 students from middle schools around Seattle explored the variety of perspectives and careers that are involved in planning and creating animal exhibits.  Taking what they learned from field trips to other AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions, meetings with staff at a zoo architecture firm, and talks with various staff at Woodland Park Zoo, students worked on creating their own exhibits, signage, and storytelling for an animal of their choice.  Thanks to funding from the Families & Education Levy through the City of Seattle Department of Early Learning, a whole new generation of conservation leaders and zoo architects spent their summer exploring what it takes to make conservation the heart of a zoo.

The new Assam Rhino Reserve was a big inspiration for students as they started to think about what their own exhibits might look like.
Team Building
As with past years, we always start our summer program off with an overnight camping trip.  From spending some time in the water to working through team-building exercises, the overnight trip gave our teens an opportunity to get to know each other and to learn about their various leadership styles and how to work together.  One of our groups even embarked on a riddle hike where they encountered an eclectic collection of characters that each challenged them to solve a problem as a team to get the pieces of a riddle.  When combined with s’mores around the fire and plenty of active games, each group left ready to support each other on their exhibit journey.

The hamburger and hot dog brothers (ZooCrew instructors Thomas and Rex) have a challenge for the ZooCrew students!  If they could complete the team-building task, they would receive a part of the riddle!

With all the clues collected, it is time to solve the riddle.
Animal Perspective
The first task for each group was to figure out what animal they wanted to design an exhibit for.  With the help of Bobbi Miller, WPZ Field Conservation Coordinator, we learned about the ways that zoos work with wildlife conservation programs around the world to help support endangered and threatened animals.  Bobbi helped students to explore the conservation issues of the animals they wanted to work on, and we then visited Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium to explore how conservation and the stories of individual animals can be brought out through exhibits.  We then had the opportunity to meet with some of the animal keepers at the zoo to talk about the needs of the animals and how exhibits are designed with animal comfort and safety first.  Armed with these ideas and information (and a trip to the Seattle Aquarium to look at aquatic exhibits), students started to plan out their first designs of their exhibits.
A trip to Seattle Aquarium was really helpful to some of the groups that focused on aquatic animals for their exhibits.
Nothing helps you understand the perspective of a polar bear like watching it swim!  Students got to see the exhibits for a variety of new animals on our visit to Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.
Animal Keeper Perspective
Our next major topic was how to design exhibits to make them work for the animal keeper staff that use them every day.  One group explored this by getting to go behind the scenes at the penguin exhibit and talk with keepers about their needs.  The other group got to see conservation in action when they visited our baby Western pond turtles and learned about what it takes to raise these local endangered turtles for release in the wild.  Students then took a trip to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park to explore a different way of designing exhibits and exploring how those exhibits impacted the animals and the keepers.  Students returned to their blueprints and started to design the ‘behind the scenes’ parts of their exhibits for both animals and keepers.

Students get a look behind the scenes at Woodland Park Zoo’s Ambassador Animals to learn about what both the animals and keepers need to make them both safe, comfortable, and healthy.

Woodland Park Zoo Animal Keeper Jordan Veasley, talks with ZooCrew students about the features of the African savanna that he finds helpful or would change to make his job easier.
Guest Perspective
The next topic was how visitors to the zoo engage with exhibits and what their experience is like.  We took a trip to the Pacific Science Center where we met with Felicia Maffia, the exhibit development manager.  Felicia used real examples at the science center to help students explore how to engage people in learning and what the design process can look like.  Back at Woodland Park Zoo, students started to think about sight lines and how they could make their exhibit interactive or immersive for guests.  With first designs close to done, students provided peer feedback and swapped ideas to get ready for their second iterations.

Sometimes to understand what it feels like to be a guest, you just have to be one!  Lily was only too happy to volunteer to find out what some guests get to experience at our Earn Your Wings program this summer.

Other Perspectives
As we entered the final stretch of the program, other considerations were added into the exhibits.  Students got to tour the ZooDoo yards and started to think about how to make their exhibits more sustainable.  They also met with Woodland Park Zoo’s interpretation department and get ideas on how to create engaging and conservation-action oriented signage.  We met with the zoo’s marketing department to talk about what it takes to get people excited about visiting and inspiring people to make conservation a part of their lives.  We also had the unique opportunity to meet actual zoo architects at Portico here is Seattle.  Students explored how perspective drawing and virtual reality can help bring to life designs and talked about what it takes to make the zoo of the future.  Of course, students also needed an opportunity to examine how you create an atmosphere of fun, so a purely research-focused day at Wild Waves was required to help them internalize those lessons.  
No better person to ask for feedback on your exhibit design than a professional zoo architect!  Xavier and Jaqueline listened intently to some suggestions and praise on our visit to Portico.
Dhillon works on his own design using virtual reality!  Students had the opportunity to try out a 3-D design program on our visit to Portico.  
You can tell how hard Vy and Patrick are working to learn about creating an atmosphere of fun on their trip to Wild Waves.
During all this, students worked on their final blueprints, created signage for their exhibit, and developed a marketing campaign to spread the word.  However, the most exciting part was still to come as students took their blueprint and brought them to live by creating models of them using recycled materials!  The program wrapped up with an overnight at the zoo where we finally got to see what the animals were up to when everyone else want home.  Out last day was spent at Carkeek Park reflecting by the water, having a BBQ, and enjoying out last day as a group.

Making the models of their exhibits was one of the most exciting, and exhausting, part of the summer.
Family Night
At the end of the program, participants invited their families to Woodland Park Zoo to show off their exhibits and enjoy an evening looking at animals.  Students then presented their projects sharing their models, their conservation messages, and some of the lessons they learned along the way.  We want to send out another thank you for all the work that ZooCrew parents and guardians put in to help make the program run smoothly this summer.  We also wanted to thank all the zoo staff and community organizations that helped provide such a great experience this summer.  Finally, we wanted to let the ZooCrew students know how proud we are of the work they did this summer.  

We know that our ZooCrew students will be a big part of the movement to make conservation a priority in our lives!

To learn more about ZooCrew and other education opportunities, visit