Talk to the Animals

Zoo School offers world-class experience
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Imagine being interested in a career in computers and getting some of your education at Apple or Microsoft. Or pursuing a career in business or finance and learning from Warren Buffett’s staff at Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
 
That should give you some idea of what it’s like to be a part of the Delaware Area Career Center’s Zoo School, where juniors and seniors from central Ohio high schools are earning college credit while gaining experience at one of the best zoos on the planet, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
 
The Zoo School program was started during the 2002-2003 school year by the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio. The Delaware Area Career Center (DACC) has run the program for the past 10 years.
 
 “The (ESC) started the program by copying a program that existed in Kansas and approaching the zoo,” said Alicia Mowry, public relations supervisor at the DACC. “We have a good relationship with the ESC and it seemed like a good fit for everyone involved to make it a career center program.”
 
Mowry said the program is designed to start training students for careers in biology, zoology, animal science, veterinary medicine, and related studies. Those selected for the program spend half of the school day at the zoo during their junior and senior years, completing a project that they help create each year while earning as many as seven transcripted credits for college.
 
Ideally, students will take the Zoo 1 course during their junior year and progress to the Zoo 2 course in their senior year. Emily Cunningham is in her third year as the Zoo School instructor, and said the program is capped at 25 students in each course.
 
“Currently we have 15 students in our Zoo 2 program, all seniors, and 24 in our Zoo 1 program. In the past, we’ve admitted seniors to the Zoo 1 session, but they graduate and can’t continue on,” Cunningham said. “We give preference to juniors who can complete both years.”
 
Cunningham said students in the Zoo 2 group spend the morning at the zoo and the afternoon at their home school district. The schedule is reversed for the Zoo 1 students.
“In a typical day, they’ll take two academic classes here, zoology and statistics, and we alternate those so they’ll have one of those on any given day,” Cunningham said. “It’s very much like regular school. But after that first hour or so, our program is unique. Students are on their own to do their research projects. They’ll go out into the zoo, collect their data, and manage their project. We don’t expect the juniors to know how to do this coming in, so we walk them through a pilot thesis. Once that is completed, they start their project in November and it continues for the rest of the school year. The seniors are a little different – college-level chemistry replaces the stats class and they have their project all year.”
 
Student projects cover a wide range of topics, from animal enrichment to marine biology and water quality monitoring in the zoo’s aquarium.
 
 “Some students select a project based on their favorite animal, others pick based on the weather because they know they’ll be working through the winter and some choose to work with the indoor animals,” Cunningham said. “We often stress to the students that they are very lucky to have this opportunity.”
 
The opportunity has proven to be extremely valuable for some of this year’s seniors. Megan Jackman, Nick Langlois, and Emma Meyung are all completing their second year of Zoo School, and are well prepared for the next step along their career path.
 
“Zoo School has given me the opportunity to confirm what I want to do during and after college,” said Jackman, who plans on studying biology at the University of Central Florida after graduation. “I’ve always wanted to be a zookeeper, and to be able to test out this career at such a young age is amazing. I’ve gained so many friends and mentors through this experience.”
 
Langlois’ Zoo School experience has helped him lay a solid foundation for what he hopes will be a career in wildlife conservation. He said he most likely will attend Otterbein University in the fall to major in zoo and conservation science. From there, he may pursue master’s and doctorate degrees.
 
 “In my first year of Zoo School, I performed my own research studies on the behavior of some of the zoo’s animals. This year, I am working as an intern for (the zoo’s) Asia Quest (area),” Langlois said. “This program has really helped me explore my interests, and the hands-on take really provides a more enriching educational experience than I would get from a more traditional system.”
 
Meyung, who plans to attend The Ohio State University to major in zoology after graduation, said her Zoo School experience alone could help her with future internships and jobs.
 
 “Working hand-in-hand with keepers and other staff here at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, I have a greater understanding of the work environment and the communication needed among staff to complete some of the common, daily demands of the job,” said Meyung, who chose to study orangutans for both of her projects. “I love that Zoo School has given me the opportunity to conduct a study that could actually mean something and change the way we care for the orangutans here.”
 
Returning to the Columbus Zoo as an employee at some point isn’t out of the question for Zoo School graduates. Tiffany Dollins, animal programs specialist at the zoo, was a student during Zoo School’s first year.
 
 “The program allowed us to work independently and around the zoo,” Dollins said. “This method greatly prepared me for college (at Ohio State). It was a unique experience to work with real data and zookeepers during my high school experience, and to see my research make an impact at the end of the project.”
Dollins, who graduated from Ohio State in 2007 with a degree in agriculture and a concentration in natural resources, said Zoo School helped in her decision to pursue a career in the zoological field.
 
“Prior to being a Zoo School student, I believed one of the only careers for me would be in veterinary medicine,” she said. “The programs helped open my eyes to other possibilities within the zoo.”
 
Today, as an animal program specialist, Dollins works with everything from penguins and cheetahs to armadillos and dingoes, conducting educational programs in and around Columbus, appearing on local news broadcasts promoting the zoo, and even assisting the zoo’s most famous face – Jack Hanna – with his television appearances around the country. 
 
Students past and present agree that being enrolled in Zoo School is well worth the effort, though it requires a strong work ethic, a dedication to and passion for animals, a commitment to completing the workload … and one more thing.
 
“It helps to be a fan of khaki and polo shirts, because that’s the required uniform,” Langlois said.