Connecting Students to Nature a Partnership – Naples Zoo & CCPS

by Kelsey Burr, Naples Zoo Marketing Associate

Education is at the heart of Naples Zoo’s mission. We want to inspire visitors to respect, value, and help conserve wildlife and our natural world. The best way to fulfill that mission is to connect children to nature at a young age, and foster that connection throughout their lifetime.

One way we do that is through a unique partnership with Collier County Public Schools (CCPS). There is nothing like a visit to Naples Zoo as a child. The excitement and awe of seeing the animals close in natural habitats does wonders for inspiring young minds. However, a visit to the Zoo isn’t always possible. We want to educate as many students as possible, even if they can’t visit Naples Zoo for a field trip. That is how the distance learning program, ZooCon, was created.

ZooCon is a live broadcast from Naples Zoo to the televisions of CCPS classrooms. Through ZooCon, students from kindergarten to fifth grade are given the chance to connect with our zookeepers and scientists from the field, ask questions live, and get up-close views of our incredible animal residents. Every program includes a special discussion with Naples Zoo’s animal care experts, our zookeepers. They share the stories of their careers and their relationships with the animals they spend their lives caring for. In addition, most programs include a conversation with one of our partners, a biologist or researcher in the field. 

This school year, fifth graders learned about Florida panthers from Dave Onorato, Florida Panther Researcher from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Fourth graders will learn about the fosa from National Geographic Explorer and researcher Dr. Luke Dollar. In February, third graders will learn about African lions from Dr. Amy  Dickman, the founder of the Ruaha Carnivore Project. In March, second graders will learn about giraffes from Dr. Julian Fennessy, the founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Africa.

In April, first grade students will learn about bears from Sarah Peltier, black bear biologist with FWC. Each ZooCon program follows Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and approximately 20,000 students are reached annually- every elementary student in Collier County  Public Schools. The entire grade level has the opportunity to participate, either live or via video after the event. The teachers are prepared in advance and are provided with lessons and activities for their students, including a conservation action for each species.

“It is important to let children know that no matter how young they are, they have big voices and there are many things they can do to protect wildlife,” Stacy Graison, Naples Zoo’s Director of
Education said. In the past, students have raised funds for fosa radio collars, sold giraffe bracelets to their peers for giraffe research funding, and they have had adults make commitments for panthers and bears. Even the kindergarten students create posters for their schools to raise awareness on ways to live safely with alligators.

This is no small undertaking. CCPS brings their production truck and team to the Zoo in advance for setup. It takes several Zoo staff also on hand to make sure the animals are safe, teachers
and students are ready, the zookeeper and field biologist are ready, and the CCPS team can do what they need to do on Zoo grounds as well as ensuring each school’s connections are ready. One
connection we make goes all the way to Namibia!

President and CEO of Naples Zoo, Jack Mulvena, explains “the partnership the Zoo has with Collier County Public Schools is critically important. Having the opportunity to connect with so many students  through distance learning supports our mission of education and  conservation. We are very proud of this partnership with CCPS, and we look forward to educating many more students for years to come.”

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