A school field trip to the zoo is a familiar learning experience. Students see live animals, learn about them and their habitats, and perhaps even interact with the exhibits. But what if students could become virtual curators of the zoo? What if they could take charge of the zoo experience and become their own zoo guides?
Such a learning experience would challenge young people to move beyond being passive receivers of information to being authors and publishers. In the process, they would have to master many more skills than the memorization of animal names and facts. They would have to understand natural systems, habitats and scientific classification. To organize their ideas and communicate them, they would to engage in critical thinking, planning, and develop acquire skills digital media publishing skills.
In 2009, The New Learning Institute partnered with several organizations to develop exactly that kind of program, the 2009 Mobile Guide Summer Camp held at the Bronx Zoo.
The young people in the summer camp were chosen through Fordham University’s STEP program, one of NLI’s long-term partners. STEP helps college-bound science and engineering students by giving them a head start in after school and summer programs. Other partners in the project included the Social Science Research Council and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The curriculum for the camp was based on curriculum models developed in partnership with The Bronx Zoo, The American Museum of Natural History, City Lore, and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Together these organizations represented a wealth of expertise in pedagogy, zoology, ecology, digital media, geospatial technologies and project-based New Learning.
At the camp, which was held at the Bronx Zoo, the participants were grouped into small teams. Their goal: to create digital tour guides that would lead visitors to five of the exhibits at the zoo.
The students began by choosing a theme for their tour, one that would link any five animals in the zoo into a guided tour. In picking a unifying element, the teams had to use critical thinking skills. For example, they had to decide if the animals would be linked by habitat, their place in the food chain or some other shared characteristic. This required research in zoology and biology and then finding organizing principles within their research. Working as a team also meant mastering skills in leadership and group decision-making.
Once the teams had researched their themes and chosen their exhibits, they set out across the zoo to create their virtual guides. Guided by the professionals from the New Learning Institute, the students used new Nokia mobile devices to conduct Internet research, to capture still and video images of tour “guide posts,” and to create audio guides for their virtual tours. They used the GPS capabilities of their phones to “geo-tag” these elements, which would allow them later to be placed accurately in interactive online maps. After gathering their assets, the teams went back to the classroom to create their virtual tours, using video editing and online tools, such as Adobe Premier Elements, Ovi, Kaywa and Google Maps.
From Consumers to Creators
The Mobile Guide Summer Camp is a good example of how digital media devices allow young people to move from being consumers of media to creators of media. Instead of simply reading exhibit signs or viewing videos prepared for visitors, these students created their own guides and published them online where they can be used by other visitors. Their guides can also be accessed by visitors at the zoo using smart phones or other mobile devices.
Programs like the Mobil Summer Guide are creating a new model for transforming education — by harnessing students’ excitement about creating their own digital media, and giving them new skills to do so and by allowing them to use the connectivity of mobile communications to learn outside the classroom. To complete this project-based program students had to master several areas of knowledge, apply critical thinking, exercise time management and integrate technology into a broader project goal, all of which are critical 21st century skills.
The completed virtual tours are now online and available to zoo visitors. These three are great examples of the work produced by the students: