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Sedgwick County Zoo becomes lab for Independent School students

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at 8:27 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 1, 2014, at 1:29 p.m.


Evan Olson’s teachers on Tuesday were two huge lions from sub-Saharan Africa, perched atop a rock, surveying their habitat.

“I haven’t seen the other ones do that,” said Olson, 17, a Wichita junior, writing in his notebook. “They usually just run to the food.”

Olson was observing the lions as part of his zoo science class, a partnership between the Independent School and the Sedgwick County Zoo, and the only program of its kind in the country, officials say. The private school offered the course to middle- and high-schoolers for the first time this year and says it has been a success.

“We’re always looking for a way to enrich classes, and we couldn’t think of a better project-based learning experience than the zoo,” said Jane Shaw, a member of the school’s board of trustees who helped launch the program.

More than 20 students participated in the class. Middle schoolers got behind-the-scenes looks at zoo exhibits, including early looks at newborn animals before they were put on exhibit.

The high school class, open to 10th- through 12th-graders with a biology prerequisite, studies the diversity and taxonomy of vertebrates and invertebrates, animal husbandry and scientific inquiry under the guidance of Chaille Blount, a zoo education specialist. As part of the course, each student selected an animal to study, then proposed and implemented a change to the animal’s environment and observed its reaction.

Olson studied whether hollow logs filled with meat, placed inside the zoo’s African habitat by professional zookeepers, would tempt lions to put on more of a show.

“A lot of people talk about how lazy they are, but most don’t realize that in the wild they do sleep 20 to 22 hours a day,” he said. “I was thinking that by doing this, I could get them to be a little more active.”

Carson Boorigie opted to study how the zoo’s gorillas responded to “puzzle buckets” filled with chopped vegetables. Jacob Stewart fashioned a scratching post for the cougars. And Ila Koeppel noted how meerkats reacted to teaspoons of dried herbs – sage, thyme or dill – placed into their enclosure.

“I’ve always liked meerkats because they’re just really social, and there’s always something going on,” Koeppel said.

Last semester she learned how to observe just one meerkat – a snaggle-toothed, elderly male named Hun, who was easy to spot because of the scar on his nose and his leisurely gait – and catalog his behaviors using an ethogram chart. On Tuesday, Koeppel observed and charted all 13 meerkats.

“It’s hard because they’re everywhere,” she said.

Blount, the zoo educator, said the year-long course, part classroom and part “zoo laboratory,” offered students an accurate look at animal behavior over time – a much deeper insight than just an occasional field trip.

The students got to observe a necropsy – an autopsy of an animal – and solved “medical mysteries” designed by Blount. And they spent lots of time near animal habitats, just watching and learning.

“They might be sitting there observing an animal and just marking down, ‘inactive, inactive, inactive.’ But that’s what would happen if they were scientists in the field,” she said. “They learn to really watch the animal for changes in behavior and then try to figure out what might be causing that.”

Barbara Hannah, the Independent science teacher who partnered with Blount, said the school plans to offer the class again next school year, tweaking the logistics to allow more time at the zoo.

“I am taking notes daily. I am learning so much,” Hannah said. “It’s been an incredible experience for everybody.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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