The students from Bouchet Academy are scattered around the Tropical River area at Lincoln Park Zoo's McCormick Bird House taking part in an ethology activity (the study of animal behavior) to sharpen their scientific observation skills. A variety of birds surround them, mostly nestled in small trees or walking on the ground. Occasionally, a bird flies over the students’ heads and someone tries to snap a picture with their smartphone. Each student has selected a bird in the area to watch closely for three minutes. Every ten seconds a zoo staff member directs them to “Look!” and the students quickly make a note on their clipboard about the behavior their particular bird exhibits.
The highlight of the third week of the Biodiversity Quest program in Chicago was the first field trip to Lincoln Park Zoo. Unlike some school field trips to the zoo that must keep to a tight schedule and don’t always allow time for personal exploration, the youth participants in the Biodiversity Quest program were given time to explore the exhibits that most interested them. These youth also had a unique purpose for their visit: to research information for the mobile quests they would be designing over the next five weeks.
The packed day started off with an introduction from Director of Student and Teacher Programs, Dr. Leah Melber. She offered the students suggestions on what to include in their mobile quests. In one instance, for those students who selected a species that is less active during the day at the zoo, she suggested that they add videos or photos from the ARKive.org website to their quests to enhance a visitor’s understanding of that species when they visit its exhibit at the zoo. Next, Dr. Melber led the BQ participants through the ethology activity in the Bird House. After learning how to observe species closely through this activity, the students were then ready to explore the zoo! During their first round of exploration, the students used Zoo Tracks guides. These curriculum brochures, created by the Zoo, educate young people about a particular theme, such as predator-prey relationships, and then lead the visitor to different species around the zoo that exemplify that theme. The guides helped the students orient to zoo grounds, but also served as an example of how to draw connections between several exhibits, similar to what they will do when designing their own mobile quests.
Finally, the small groups had time to walk around to visit the exhibits in which they were most interested. Not surprisingly, this led most of the groups to the Regenstein Center for African Apes for a visit with the gorillas and chimpanzees. Students navigated their way around the zoo documenting what they saw as they moved from exhibit to exhibit. By the end of the day, the students’ smartphones, clipboards, and minds were packed with research and ideas for building their quests back at the school.