ZooU

The overarching goal is to introduce people to these cool resources that are in our backyard–And that higher education rarely utilizes. –Ben Recchia & Kathryn Spilios

 

Recently, zoos and aquariums have become increasingly focused on conservation education, providing unique and diverse learning opportunities for visitors. Exploring zoos and aquariums can grant college students opportunities to learn up-close and apply course concepts in interactive and active learning environments; however, these visits can be hard to incorporate in large-enrollment college courses. 

Principles of learner-centric pedagogy (e.g., flexible learning pathways, standards-based assessment, and flipped classrooms) are becoming more common in higher education, and have been well-researched and widely utilized for formal science education, yet not for education at zoos and aquariums. It can also be quite difficult to incorporate these methods without completely redesigning a course. A waddle of penguins cluster on a large rock in the New England Aquarium as visitors look on.

To address these issues, biology graduate student Ben Recchia (advised by Dr. Kathryn Spilios) developed ZooU in spring 2021, a new mobile application prototype using Google Forms to connect biology students to active learning opportunities at zoos and aquariums. The ZooU app allows students visiting zoos and aquariums to go off on their own and engage in the content through the technology. “The app allows students to engage in those experiences in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before,” according to Recchia.

The technology consists of modules that can be easily swapped in for a single lab, and assessed for effectiveness separately from the rest of the course. Of these modules, the Animal Behavior Module is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards: Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS: SEPs). 

In the summer of 2022, 40 students from BI 107 (Introductory Biology) and BI 407/607 (Animal Behavior) completed the ZooU Animal Behavior Module at the New England Aquarium as one of their labs. Using student feedback from the summer courses, the module was revised and then incorporated as a lab for 100 students in BI 407/607 (Animal Behavior) for Fall 2022.

During the course, students were asked to design an investigation based on one of four New England Aquarium-related challenges (e.g., reducing penguin aggression during the nesting season). For the prelab, students recorded their initial investigation ideas and self-assessed using the SEPs. Through the self-assessment, students identified SEPs they need to practice and questions they need to answer when they visit the aquarium. 

During lab at the aquarium, students then chose to complete at least 6 of 18 active learning activities. Depending on the activity, students practiced between one and three scientific skills, each of which involved taking a photo and producing a written/drawn/graphed/etc. response. For the postlab, students then revised their initial investigation ideas into a draft research proposal and self-assessed again to identify improvement. 

Usually at an aquarium, I would just walk around aimlessly. I feel that actively thinking through questions and formulating my own responses to well-thought-out prompts allowed me to really learn a lot from my time at the aquarium. --Anonymous student reflection

In the prelab self-assessments from the Fall, students indicated that they had demonstrated an average of 11 of 18 SEP skills. In the postlab self-assessment, that number increased to 16 of 18—an almost 50% increase. Additionally, the students responded favorably to questions regarding the quality of their ZooU learning experience. From this research, Recchia and Spilios have a better understanding of how incorporating active learning activities and inquiry-based learning contributes to successful learner-centric pedagogy in labs.

This lab gave me the opportunity to put my research skills from this semester to the test and assess my abilities pertaining to the study of animal behavior… I hope to have this type of opportunity again in the future, as it allows me to see if my research and observation skills are improving. --Anonymous student reflection

In the future, ZooU could incorporate additional modules specific to a diverse suite of other courses (e.g., environmental chemistry, conservation genetics, zoonotic disease pandemics). “In theory, other departments could use our resources to design a module for chemistry, business 101, or other very diverse courses,” said Recchia. With a ZooU module, instructors can trial these new methods within the context of their specific course before considering any larger course structure changes. 

Spilios is interested to “Continue along this line of thinking to explore less traditional resources to bring into active engagement in the lab setting. It has shown the department that there’s a lot more out there and we can be a lot more creative in the design and development of our courses.”

ZooU will be an exceptional tool for researching these emerging methods across disciplines because of the intensely interdisciplinary nature of zoology and the limitless learning opportunities at zoos and aquariums.


For More Information...

Recchia, B. (2023). Zoos and aquariums as educational resources. [Master's Thesis, Boston University]

Project Team

Ben Recchia headshot

Ben Recchia

Former BU Graduate Student

Ben Recchia is a Doctoral Fellow in Biology at the University of Vermont, where he develops and researches pedagogical innovations designed to increase educational utilization of zoos and aquariums, a focus he developed while pursuing his MS in Biology at Boston University. Ben created ZooU

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