July 24, 2015
Hands-on Summer Learning at Woodland Park Zoo
By Eli Weiss
Youth Programs Supervisor, Woodland Park Zoo

Editor's Note: The Woodland Park Zoo participated in the Youth Program Quality Initiative to build a hands-on summer program that keeps kids learning beyond the classroom. Eli Weiss, youth programs supervisor at the zoo, explains the unique approach they take to engage young people with STEM-related content.

Summer is here and at the Woodland Park Zoo our youth programs are in full swing. On our 92 acre grounds and beyond, middle and high school students find a place to learn and grow outside of the classroom, through participation in the ZooCrew and ZooCorps programs. We provide youth an opportunity to make real life connections to science, develop communication and job skills and explore STEM and conservation careers. Each year 300+ middle- and high-school-aged youth are engaged in free out-of-school time and summer programs, which are rooted in youth development best practices.

In 2014, with support from the City of Seattle Families and Education Levy, we piloted the ZooCrew Summer Learning Experience, a new five week hands on STEM program for middle school students that takes on summer learning loss with a fresh new approach. What makes our program unique? We strive for a seamless integration of “academic” and “enrichment” elements. In ZooCrew, participants spend less time in a traditional classroom setting and more time digging into science practice through outside investigations and fieldtrips around the region.

Currently our second cohort of ZooCrew Summer students from Asa Mercer, Washington and Denny Middle Schools are engaged in a summer of learning focused on a watershed theme. Over the course of the program, students will engage in weekly science investigations and field trips as they deepen their understanding of each part of the watershed. For many students this will be the first time they have visited local sites, including the Cedar River watershed, Snoqualmie pass, a salmon hatchery and a water treatment plant. In addition to developing science and communication skills, participants keep their math and literacy skills sharp through activities that tie into the theme. Our ZooCrew participants are also developing a STEM identity through interactions with experts and investigations that make science learning exciting and relevant.

Julia, a student at Asa Mercer Middle School and a participant in our ZooCrew afterschool and summer programs recently shared: “In ZooCrew, we act like scientists, we make observations, we do experiments, we work on projects. I learned more about people who go out into the field and actually work with animals and you don’t have to be in a lab always to do science.”    

By providing dynamic opportunities for youth who might not otherwise have the access to science and STEM enrichment programs, we are helping to reduce summer learning loss and providing pathways for students to develop a love of learning and a positive, hands-on connection to science.