A Year of Conservation Education

 Conservation is a human responsibility
Conservation is a human responsibility

“What defines an invasive species? Are humans an invasive species?”, one of my students asked me during lunch. Earlier that day he had asked a similar question in front of the whole group, but I had responded that we didn’t have enough time to get into a long debate about the contentious definition of an invasive species. I said that if he wanted, we could debate whether or not humans were an invasive species over lunch. Instead of playing Pokemon Go like all the other students did at Zoo Camp during lunch, he came over to talk with me about conservation.

The United States conservation movement began in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.  Nineteen years later, in 1891, US Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act.  Since then, Americans have been campaigning and educating the masses to be responsible stewards of the environment.  Recent (a relative term) public relations and education programs have included Keep America Beautiful (est. 1953), the US Forest Service’s Woodsy Owl-Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute! (1971), and NAMEPA’s Save Our Seas  (est. 2007).

As a Conservation Education Fellow at the Bronx Zoo, I had the chance to work with brilliant young people, already passionate, creative, and driven. In my experience, education is simultaneously the most rewarding, frustrating, and exhausting activity in which one can participate. But despite all the stress the kids I worked with put me through last summer, I still believe that this is the most important part of my job as a scientist: educating others, particularly young people, about what I do. And I don’t just teach them, young people teach me an amazing amount, even about topics in which I consider myself an expert.

While I was home from school for winter break, I visited the Robotics team at my local middle school. The students were tasked with not only building a functional robot for their competition, but also with creating a responsible invention, the theme of which for 2017 was helping marine wildlife. Before even getting into a discussion of marine wildlife, the topic for which I had been brought in as an “expert” to whom they could ask questions, I was already impressed with the robots they were building. So many young students, including a younger sister who came up to the middle school every week once she was done with a day of elementary school, were engaged in innovation and creativity. Needless to say, these students already seemed like they had a lot they could teach me.

 Are biodegradable fishing nets in our future?
Are biodegradable fishing nets in our future?

 Their ideas in design and solutions to environmental issues far surpassed anything I could have come up with so quickly on my own. I came in with basic information for them, ready to give them a summary of what I knew about the local marine environment and its inhabitants. They asked me endless detailed questions, drawing out pieces of information I didn’t even know I knew. But what they gave me in return was the applications of my work; their creative minds turned my basic knowledge of sea turtles in the Long Island Sound into an idea for biodegradable nets.           

But I cannot talk about education without talking about its difficulties; I did refer to it as the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done in addition to the most rewarding. In all challenging jobs, people are able to grow and learn about themselves. Education, however, amplifies this through the lens of reflection. In each student, I see myself or someone else I know. Each student is also someone I get to know as a person in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, their frustrating habits and ingenious spurts of inspiration. These complexities and intricacies in each unique individual push teachers to new levels of growth and achievement with each lesson.

And even when the kids are annoying or crazy or downright ridiculous, there’s always a story to tell and laugh about, even if the laughing comes years down the line. Teaching is fun even when it’s arduous; young students never fail to give material for a fascinating or hilarious story.

At the end of the summer I got to work closely with a small group of high schoolers, an experience which was made both more frustrating and more fun because of the proximity of my age to theirs. I taught an elective called “Future Leaders in Conservation” for three weeks. During the three weeks, we developed leadership skills, culminating in a final project that involved creating an educational game to teach to younger campers. They were given the chance to experience what my summer job had been like.

How about a game of “Mongoose, Hawk, Cobra”?

As our final sessions were coming to an end and the day of their presentations grew closer, I was increasingly nervous that the games wouldn’t work. Four-year-olds might not be able to jump from hoop to hoop pretending to be falcons, nor would they understand the rules to “rock, paper, scissors” when it suddenly became a game involving mongooses and cobras in order to demonstrate predator-prey relationships. The final day came and it was extremely hot out and the group arrived late. Overheated kindergarteners have even more trouble concentrating than they usually do. Thirty minutes later, six high schoolers had successfully played three games of their own design with twenty-four kindergarteners. I congratulated the future leaders on their success in an activity they reflected was, as I had told them it would be, both frustrating and fun.

Later that day, I spoke with my coworkers who were working with the younger kids. During lunch time, the kindergarten campers were overheard playing “mongoose, hawk, cobra,” the game which I had thought would be hardest for the younger campers to understand.  I could not contain my joy because it meant that I had also been successful – I had taught my kids how to teach.

Julia Zeh

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