Skip to main content

Get your Master's degree through Miami University's Advanced Inquiry Program at Woodland Park Zoo

Posted by Ryan Driscoll, Lead Learning Facilitator, Woodland Park Zoo

Are you passionate about conservation? Do you want to learn more about environmental issues and take action? Are you looking for ways to engage with your community about subjects that matter? You should consider the Advanced Inquiry Program at Woodland Park Zoo.

Miami University's Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) is an exciting web-based master’s degree program that includes experiential learning and field study offered at Woodland Park Zoo. As an advisor and facilitator of the program, I often get asked who this program is for and what types of projects students do. As we start recruitment for the 2021 cohort, I couldn’t think of a better way to highlight the diverse array of professions, interests, and projects that this program supports than to let some of our current students share some of their experiences.

I hope you leave as inspired as I always am when working with students in this program! If you are interested in learning more, please check out the AIP webpage and sign up for one of our upcoming digital information sessions. See you there!

Ylfa Muindi

Ylfa Muindi is a graduate student in the AIP Master's program. Photo courtesy of Ylfa. 

What initially got you interested in AIP?

After several years of performing as an actress and puppeteer, I found that the stories I most wanted to share were the stories of the natural world—how life filled countless niches, how animals think and feel, how trees and mushrooms work together to sustain ancient forests. AIP provided an opportunity to gain these skills while also working full time.

Give us an overview of your main focus of study for your degree—known in this program as your Master Plan.

I think that there is great potential for forests and people to heal each other. My work has been focused on how empathy for non-human others (such as trees, animals, or fungi), forest bathing, and forest regeneration can promote health for both human and non-human communities.

What have you been up to this summer to work towards your Master Plan?

I received a grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture to create forest therapy programs. The aim of this project was to connect people from all walks of life, but especially those who feel alienated from nature, to the incredible lives of our local organisms via self-guided forest therapy podcasts. These podcasts were designed to work our “empathy muscles”, expand our observation skills, and deepen our connections to and respect for nature. This is especially important during the strange times of the COVID pandemic, in which we feel alienated from not only nature but also from the city we once felt so familiar with. This project aimed to re-connect our community to the nature of our city via forest therapy techniques which build emotional resilience and mindfulness. You can tune in via

What impact has this program had on you and the way you work with your community?

AIP really pushed me to build connections with others. Rather than simply write about my ideas, I asked others to explore these ideas with me. I have enjoyed collaborating with others who are finding ways to foster empathy, and I have greatly benefited from the program’s encouragement to include feedback from the community. When people share with you how they feel when they are in a forest, it’s magical!

Elsie Mitchell

What initially got you interested in AIP?

I wanted to gain more knowledge in teaching through inquiry as well as gain more biological knowledge. I searched inquiry-based master’s degree and low in behold, AIP came up and it turned out there was a program less than an hour away from me based in a zoo. I was sold.

Give us an overview of your main focus of study for your degree--known in this program as your Master Plan.

My Master Plan involves creating an outdoor classroom for my school so they might find a sense of place and purpose in conservation and STEM careers. The outdoor classroom that I am creating is beside a wetland that is worsening water quality. As part of my master plan, a team and I have been removing a good portion of invasive species that have taken over and then we will plant native species to both learn from and influence the water quality of the wetland. If the water quality improves enough, the Tribe’s fishery and I will encourage a passage between the connecting stream and the wetland so that juvenile salmon might be able to use the wetland as a rearing habitat. Helping students, the wetland and the salmon: these are my focus.

Elise Mitchell removed invasive plants from native areas and created an outdoor classroom for her school. Photo courtesy of Elise.

What have you been up to this summer to work towards your Master Plan?

This summer has been a big push towards creating the outdoor classroom and removing invasive species. I completed an internship with the Puyallup Tribe’s fishery and they were kind enough to not only teach me all about salmon, but lend me their time, equipment and expertise to help me create this outdoor classroom and restore a part of the wetland. This summer we successfully removed over 10,000 lbs of blackberries, dug up hundreds of blackberry hearts, laid down 65 years of wood chips in hopes after 8 months the soil will be restored enough to plant trees with the students.

What impact has this program had on you and the way you work with your community?

This program has changed the direction of my career making me more confident in my science knowledge as well as opened up opportunities to teach in a position that is my absolute dream job. My community is thrilled to have someone who cares enough to create not only curriculum but a program that could change students’ lives.

Kami Koyamatsu

Kami Koyamatsu is a Master's student in the AIP program. Photo courtesy of Kami.

What initially got you interested in AIP?

I have always been passionate about the natural world and conservation, but I hadn’t felt like I could really do much and decided it was time I focused on something productive. With this program, I was hoping to learn how to further propel the conservation movement, use my skills and interests (like natural science illustration), get some field work experience, and make connections that will help me find a meaningful career.

Give us an overview of your main focus of study for your degree--known in this program as your Master Plan.

My master plan is all about bats! I love bats! They are amazing creatures that many people fear while knowing very little about them, and yet we are all dependent on them for life as we know it. It is astounding how underappreciated they are when they eat so many insects. They are a great natural pest control (no chemicals needed!). Others are pollinators or seed dispersers. Without bats we would not have bananas, mangoes, avocados, or tequila!

Bat monitoring on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Photo courtesy of Matt Steinwurtzel.

My master plan is to help educate my community about bats, why they are so important, and to encourage people to give bats a helping hand whether it be just educating their own friends and families, planting bat friendly flowers in their gardens, or even installing a bat house in their yard.

What have you been up to this summer to work towards your Master Plan?

I took two classes this summer. One was to help flesh out my master plan, make a timeline of what I want to do, and decide on the goals of each of my activities. The other class I did was an internship with the Woodland Park Zoo Bat Working Group in the conservation department. I spend much of my time on a literature review learning about urban bats, created talking points for the WPZ for education about bats and addressing questions and concerns, joining bat groups such as Bats Northwest and Bat Week, and creating suggestions of what the WPZ should do as they continue to support local bats.

The most exciting part of the internship was going out into the field and using bat detectors to record bat calls for a large scale study hosted by the North American Bat Monitoring Program. I camped on Bainbridge Island and with the help of a member of Bats Northwest we surveyed four different sites over four nights. It was a great excuse to get outside, get some fresh air, and help add data about local species. I have also created a kid friendly website to encourage the enjoyment of learning about bats. Check it out!

What impact has this program had on you and the way you work with your community?

This program has given me more confidence in talking to the public and helped me to hone my knowledge. I have been successful in reaching out to other organizations and individuals in the bat community and have been able to make some very good connections. Also being in a master’s program is a great opener, “Hey I’m a master’s student, I am focusing on bats, please teach me everything you know!”

Kevin Eyer

Graduate student Kevin Eyer. Photo courtesy of Kevin.

What initially got you interested in AIP?

Growing up, I wanted to pursue three professions. I wanted to be a zookeeper, a wildlife biologist, and a science teacher. Forced to choose one track for college I opted for formal science education, and to this day I do not regret my choice. But in addition to expanding science literacy, and inspiring/equipping the next generation for science careers, I have always felt a drive to contribute more directly to the field of conservation. A year prior to joining the AIP, I met an old work associate at a workshop for science teachers who spoke of a Masters in Biology through Woodland Park Zoo. I made a mental note. This program really seemed to align with my career aspirations! I went to a couple of the program orientations that next year and was impressed by the principles that drove the program and how well they matched with my values. The final decision was made when my wife got a call back to start her first teaching job on the Kitsap Peninsula, and I knew we needed to stay put. The online/in-person hybrid approach was an ideal option for the situation.

Give us an overview of your main focus of study for your degree--known in this program as your Master Plan.

Ultimately my Master Plan seeks to empower students to get involved in conservation organizations and research. The first step was to research the conservation organizations in my area and get to know conservation leaders and program activities/goals. This allowed me to get my own feet wet before bringing along students. Through the AIP classwork, I learned more about citizen science and techniques for building community-based science programs. I thus started a wildlife club and have been working to organize activities for students to work alongside the conservation leaders in our community. In the next year, I plan to help club members reach out to the organizations that most interest them as well as organizing at least one whole group project in partnership with a local organization.

What have you been up to this summer to work towards your Master Plan?

This summer I participated in the Northwest Wildlife Conservation class which focused on wetlands. Prior to the shut down of schools at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, my club had made plans with Kitsap Audubon Society to help install nest boxes at Poulsbo’s Fish Park, a local wetland park that several of my club members had spoken of during community mapping in the Fall. For my summer class, I devised a research question that would build my own skills in bird monitoring and facilitate further work with community leaders at the park. I got to know the lead on Fish Park’s steering committee as well as a professor with Western Washington University (WWU) that is working on experimental revegetation at the park and I assisted with some trail duties. My summer class also emphasized historical ecology so, as part of my project, I was able to make contact with Poulsbo’s Historical Society which may become helpful later on. I am particularly excited to do more work with my wildlife club at Fish Park as the maintenance of the park is largely managed by volunteers and the professor from WWU is excited to do some work along my students (their satellite campus’ environmental program continues to grow).

What impact has this program had on you and the way you work with your community?

Prior to the AIP, my work in conservation had been limited to just a couple organizations, but the research I have had to do for this program has greatly expanded my knowledge of and involvement in organizations/projects in my area. Conservation is now a holistic part of my life. The program has pushed me to action on a variety of scales, from setting up a compost at home, to sharing information about wildlife corridors, native plantings, and habitat certification with neighbors, to attending meetings of the Puget Sound Partnership, a major state agency working on ecological restoration in the Sound.

To learn more about the AIP program, check out!

Sign up for a digital information session!

Join other prospective students from around Puget Sound to learn more about this Master’s degree opportunity.

For current year info sessions, please check out