For STEM teachers, keeping up with constant breakthroughs in their areas of expertise and translating those breakthroughs into classroom lessons can be daunting. Science teachers, in particular, continuously face this challenge as their field grows and changes. These educators wonder how to keep up, and where to go for accurate information and curriculum guidance. Local science centers and zoos often can offer assistance. One such source is San Diego Zoo Global, which provides science teachers nationwide the chance for hands-on experiences in wildlife and conservation research that can be carried back to the classroom. For more information on this professional development opportunity, we contacted Maggie Reinbold, Director of Community Engagement at the Institute for Conservation Research for San Diego Zoo Global, based in Escondido, California: 

Q: Tell us about your training and experience in promoting conservation, and about your work at San Diego Zoo Global, which truly has a global reach. 

A: I currently serve San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) as director of community engagement, heading up a dynamic team dedicated to designing and implementing programs that connect communities to conservation for the benefit of wildlife and habitats.  

In this role, I oversee and support the work of the in-house and community-based conservation teams as they design and implement programs that drive conservation action through science education and community collaborations. 

My work at SDZG focuses on strengthening our efforts to enlist local and global community members in the fight against extinction. I work to connect teachers and their students with the science of saving species through our Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science and through the programs of the Conservation Education Lab and Eddy Family Outdoor Learning Lab (cumulatively referred to as our “Exploring Conservation Science” program).  

I also oversee course design and instruction for our Advanced Inquiry Program master’s degree, delivered in partnership with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  

I support innovative projects that address the human dimensions of conservation at field sites throughout the world such as northern Kenya, Southeast Asia, South America and Hawaii Island.  

My work also involves fostering key partnerships with foundations, government agencies and non-profit organizations to build capacity for high-quality, accessible conservation science education. 

I am an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Biology at Miami University, where I teach the Earth Expedition to the Big Island of Hawaii, a five-unit graduate field course focused on saving species.  

I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at San Diego State University, with a focus on the population genetics of desert aquatic insects across the Baja California peninsula. I have taught science in a number of formal and informal settings, including the San Diego Natural History Museum, Cardiff Elementary School in San Diego County and San Diego State University.  

As a National Science Foundation science fellow, I co-taught hands-on science with classroom teachers across San Diego County and also spent several seasons in Arctic Alaska, bringing hands-on science education to unique and underserved communities on the North Slope. 

Q: How and why did San Diego Zoo Global become involved with providing professional development for teachers? 

A: At SDZG, we consider science teachers an essential ally in the fight against extinction. Very few jobs in the world allow for the kind of individual, sustained interaction with young people that teachers are afforded on a daily basis, especially as it pertains to introducing students to the wonders and importance of wildlife and nature.  

Every day, teachers work tirelessly in shaping the next generation of conservation scientists, as well as future business leaders, philanthropists, politicians, educators, land managers and, perhaps most important, responsible consumers and voters. 

We also recognize that science literacy is at an all-time low throughout the United States. National Science Board findings show that U.S. students trail far behind their international peers in their knowledge and understanding of critical scientific concepts and principles. Most American students can’t apply scientific knowledge to a new situation or explain the reasoning behind their answers, as reported by the National Research Council.  

Documented trends also demonstrate an overall national decline in completion of natural science degrees, in the granting of doctoral degrees in the sciences, in the authoring of scientific papers and in our share of international patents. 

Equally challenging is the predicament of the American science teacher. National Science Board findings reveal that many science teachers in this country lack full certification and are often forced to teach outside their area of expertise. Teaching is already a challenging vocation, but the job of a science teacher, in particular, is markedly more difficult, especially in this age of advanced technology and data acquisition.  

Scientists worldwide have the capacity to examine entire genomes of species and peer deeper into the universe than at any other time in human history. Because science teachers are direct liaisons between the broader scientific community and the students they teach, they are charged with continually refining their knowledge and craft to provide relevant information about an ever-changing field of study. Without this ongoing, sustained effort by science teachers to deepen their comprehension as well as acquire skills and expertise, students are put at a disadvantage in a rapidly changing world. 

Our efforts in teacher professional development began in 2006, when we invited 12 high school life science teachers from across Southern California to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research (research headquarters for SDZG) to experience a day in the life of a conservation scientist.  

That pilot program focused on the conservation history and recovery of the California condor and was designed to bring topics of conservation science into local classrooms. Just over a decade later, we have built a nationally recognized program with a stellar reputation for giving teachers access to information and experiences that no other conservation organization can.  

To date, more than 1,050 teachers from all 50 states and 10 countries have gained innovative knowledge and tools to bring STEM topics to life in their classrooms (we host approximately 128 national and international science teachers at our research headquarters each summer).  

Many of our “alumni” describe the program as the best professional development experience of their career. During the decade that this transformative program has been offered, our alumni have shared their renewed excitement for science with more than 1 million middle school and high school science students nationally. 

Q: Tell us about your efforts in this area, including the Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science, the Conservation Education Lab and the Eddy Family Outdoor Learning Lab. What does each offer for teacher professional development, and how does each go about it?  

A: Since 2006, SDZG’s Community Engagement team has provided students, teachers and members of the community with innovative lab- and field-based research experiences that strengthen their knowledge and appreciation of the science behind species conservation.  

Our programs enable participants to engage with conservation scientists, gain access to innovative research tools and participate in hands-on experiences that connect them to conservation science in new and meaningful ways. 

Locally, our innovative programs give students, teachers and members of the community the opportunity to apply their textbook knowledge of biology and chemistry to real world scenarios in wildlife conservation. To date, we have connected more than 55,000 science students from across Southern California to the science of saving species through hands-on, exploratory conservation science field trips to our state-of-the-art Conservation Education Lab and Outdoor Learning Lab. 

Nationally, our Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science expose teachers and other educators to new and creative ways of presenting science content in the context of conserving endangered species, an inspiring topic for learners of all ages.  

These workshops are designed to provide replicable, relevant, standards-based conservation science activities for formal and informal education settings; connect science educators to wildlife conservation through relevant laboratory and field-based experiences that share recent advances in conservation research; and provide a forum for science educators to network and share ideas for weaving conservation themes into their school community and engaging students in conservation.  

Our workshop curriculum is largely hands-on and inquiry-based, is fully aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and is fully accredited through the University of San Diego (participants can earn up to three units of continuing education credits for full completion of the workshop).  

Each workshop runs Monday through Wednesday, and all participant room and board are included. Teachers also receive a $500 stipend for full participation, helping to offset travel and/or child-care costs during the workshops. 

The workshop curriculum addresses a wide range of topics from a multitude of scientific disciplines. Topics include spatial ecology, restoration and reintroduction biology, genetic recovery, reproductive endocrinology, global climate change, evolutionary biology and the human dimensions of conservation. The curriculum also includes a group project that engages participating teachers in open inquiry and teaches them how to guide this important process with their students.  

As part of the project, participants make scientific observations on the grounds of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, develop comparative questions, devise investigations to answer their questions and communicate their results to the cohort. They engage in the exploration of the foundations of inquiry-based teaching and learning, with the aim of inspiring them to use informal science learning institutions, such as zoos and aquariums, as teaching tools to engage their students.  

Such firsthand, experiential learning encourages independent and critical thinking, increasing participants’ awareness of, and concern for, the local environment and its inhabitants. This project also perfectly complements the design and implementation of the NGSS, as critical thinking and problem-solving are woven throughout the new standards in hopes of encouraging students to use inquiry-based thinking to construct explanations and design solutions. 

Much of the curriculum focuses on lab-based methods in wildlife conservation. For example, in the lab, participating teachers actively extract genomic DNA from critically endangered California condor blood samples using sophisticated laboratory techniques. They learn to use the process of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to generate billions of copies of a single region of the genome, a critically important method used in a multitude of genetic studies.  

The teachers use this Nobel Prize-winning technology to examine a variably sized gene located on the California condor sex chromosomes used to determine gender in a variety of bird species. The teachers visualize the results of their PCR sexing reactions using the technique of gel electrophoresis, where different-sized pieces of DNA are separated through an agarose matrix and stained with a chemical that fluoresces under ultraviolet light.  

The teachers also learn to use pedigree analysis to detect the presence of detrimental heritable traits and the process of karyotyping to verify molecular gender determination results. 

The curriculum also highlights field-based research techniques in wildlife conservation through active exploration of our new Outdoor Learning Lab. Hands-on field research stations throughout the space introduce teachers to camera traps, pitfall traps, audio traps, restoration methods and plant transects, connecting teachers to the science of saving species as they learn about and observe the native plants and animals of the California Floristic Province, our own local biodiversity hotspot.  

Participants utilize an interactive digital field notebook with embedded information and resources that encourages them to critically evaluate how human-mediated change in our environment relates to changes in fire regimes, water usage and, ultimately, loss of local biodiversity in Southern California and beyond, with the ultimate goal of inspiring environmental stewardship.  

The teachers are also introduced to technologies and disciplines that are gaining utility in the field of conservation science, including the use of GIS (Geographic Information System) analysis in spatial ecology and radio telemetry technology. 

This program is also a model for other informal science institutions across the nation. To date, we have hosted informal science educators from several other zoos and natural history museums, including the Denver Zoo; Oakland Zoo (California); Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium (Nebraska); Conservation Biology Institute (Oregon); Roger Williams Park Zoo (Rhode Island); Red River Zoo (North Dakota); Brevard Zoo (Florida); Utah’s Hogle Zoo; Catalina Island Conservancy (California); Crissy Field Center (California); Minnesota Zoo; Chula Vista Nature Center (California); Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Colorado); and Natural History Museum of Utah.  

It is our hope that programs similar to ours will debut nationwide, elevating the role and importance that informal science centers represent for the mission of enhancing science literacy in America, as well as for our own mission of conserving global biodiversity. 

Q: How can teachers take what they learn from you and your colleagues and apply it to their curriculum and their students, who most likely would see an exotic animal only at a zoo? 

A: In addition to receiving all curricular modules to take back to the classroom, workshop alumni also have access to custom-made conservation science kits that are shipped free of charge to and from alumni classrooms (kits include all materials and reagents for implementation of conservation science with up to 200 students and focus on topics of PCR sexing, radio telemetry, reproductive endocrinology and spatial ecology). 

Q: I understand that your zoo is involved with an advance-degree program with Ohio connections? Can you tell us about that? 

A: More than 100 community members are currently earning their master’s degrees with our Community Engagement team through the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP), a unique conservation and community-focused graduate program co-delivered in partnership with Miami University in Ohio.  

The AIP is an inquiry-driven learning experience that enables students to work directly with world-class SDZG scientists, experts and partners while completing web-based coursework through Miami University.  

The AIP is an exciting and affordable way for students to pursue their passion for conservation while earning a master’s degree and maintaining full-time work. Students are part of an unprecedented national network of leading institutions committed to local, national and global change. Project Dragonfly is based in the Biology Department at Miami, a state university in Oxford, Ohio, established in 1809. 

Miami, listed as one of the eight original Public Ivies, has a long and distinguished record of excellence in research and teaching in science and education. Project Dragonfly reaches millions of people each year through inquiry-driven learning media, public exhibits and graduate programs worldwide. AIP master’s students are part of a growing alliance of education, environmental and community leaders. 

As a culmination of their work in the program, students complete a master’s portfolio that represents a collection of course-based projects centered on a Master Plan theme that reflects each student’s personalized goals and integrates the key tenets of Project Dragonfly (Inquiry, Environmental Stewardship, Community Participation and Voice, and Local and Regional Understanding) and SDZG’s mission and vision. 

Q: Are there other ways that you have been involved with spreading the how-tos of conservation through classrooms, such as curriculum development, course design, etc? 

A: I’m involved in a number of special projects that involve bringing conservation science into classrooms throughout the world. One such program is the ‘Alala Reintroduction Community Inquiry Program, which provides Hawaii Island students the opportunity to examine firsthand the ecological significance of the ‘alala (Hawaiian crow) through the process of conservation inquiry.  

The ‘Alala Reintroduction Community Inquiry Program brings our experience in hands-on conservation science programs to students and teachers in a critically important global biodiversity hotspot, Hawaii Island.  

Hawaii Island teachers first engage with our Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science, returning to campus with new pedagogical techniques to engage their students in the process of conservation inquiry, with an emphasis on the endemic ‘alala. These inquiry-expert teachers, comfortable in their role as facilitators of STEM learning, guide their students through subsequent program experiences. 

Hawaii Island students then visit Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) on the island and engage in discussions with SDZG research staff about the ecological significance of the ‘alala by comparing pre-extinction and post-extinction forest habitats.  

They design and conduct growing experiments with native seeds back on their home campuses; the subject of their growing trials is the comparison of seeds that have passed through the digestive tract of the ‘alala (treatment; seeds from ‘alala enclosures at KBCC) versus seeds that have not (control; seeds harvested from native fruits).  

During the experimental design phase, students work with their inquiry-expert teachers to devise and refine comparative questions and discuss and document variables influencing the potential success of their designed germination and growth trials. Students observe and record the daily growth and progress of their study subjects, and, upon maturity, key the plants to species (including the documentation of Hawaiian name as well as historical use and significance). 

As a capstone lesson in restoration ecology, all native seeds that successfully germinate and grow are planted by students on campus in support of native wildlife. This program not only brings teachers and students face-to-face with ‘alala, but also gives them the chance to investigate the ‘alala’s role in forest regeneration and health with their own hands through conservation inquiry. 

Q: Is STEM-based curriculum particularly well-suited to promote wildlife conservation lessons? 

A: At SDZG, we believe that informal learning institutions, such as zoos, play a critical role in the lives of citizens for exploring and understanding science. From building excitement and interest in discovering the natural world, to offering people access to sensory experiences that they could not otherwise afford, zoos act as a liaison between citizens and biological diversity.  

Equally important is the increasing role that zoos are playing in the conservation of species and habitats, both through direct on-the-ground conservation efforts and by inspiring positive conservation action in communities at home and abroad.  

As a conservation organization, SDZG is very concerned about the lack of science literacy in the United States. We consider a strong understanding of 21st century environmental challenges, such as global climate change, loss of biodiversity, implications of genetic research, and other topics, as absolutely essential for meaningful, personal involvement in these issues.  

Many of today’s environmental challenges are complex, requiring the collective problem-solving efforts of all individuals in locally and globally connected communities. Effectively addressing these issues will require a well-informed and environmentally literate public that is willing to translate its knowledge into action. As an organization, we are wholly dedicated to partnering with and supporting science teachers and their students for the benefit of wildlife and wild places. 

Q: How can educators learn more about conservation work and how to insert it into their curriculum? 

A: The best way for educators to learn about conservation science and how to incorporate it into programs and curricula is to attend our 2019 Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science (http://institute.sandiegozoo.org/opportunities/student-and-teacher-programs). 

The application opens in January, and we hope to offer the opportunity to approximately 130 educators from throughout the world in summer 2019. Come learn with us! 

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