ZAARC Brings Action Research to Zoos and Aquariums
April 27, 2012
A visit to the New England Aquarium on any weekday finds parents wheeling strollers around a giant saltwater tank brimming with fish, sharks, and rescued sea turtles; groups of schoolchildren overlooking the penguin exhibit as a handler in a wetsuit describes the difference between the three resident species of penguin; and young and old visitors alike perched over the ray tank, running their hands over the silky cownose schools as they circle and feed. This hub for aquatic wildlife is clearly awash (pun intended) with inquiry and intellectual engagement—visual, kinesthetic, and auditory—but how can that engagement be recognized, identified, and assessed by the creators of the exhibits? A new two-year research collaboration between TERC and Oregon State University entitled ZAARC (Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative) is examining how zoo and aquarium educators might use action research as a tool to better understand engagement. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Information Science Education program.
Action research is a practice that has been used primarily in formal settings by teachers to study and refine their pedagogical techniques. By definition, action research is the study of one’s own practice. It has been described as a “living, emergent process” concerned with “developing practical knowing in pursuit of worthwhile human purposes” (Reason & Bradbury). Although action research has rarely been carried out in a zoo or aquarium, ZAARC project researchers hypothesize that zoo and aquarium educators could carry out a similar practice to understand their visitors’ experience in more detail.
“We think conducting action research as a form of professional development among zoo and aquarium educators is not only possible, but could change the entire field of informal education,” says Andee Rubin, Principal Investigator for ZAARC. “TERC has been working in informal settings like museums and zoos for many years, so we understand that outcomes in those settings can’t always be measured in terms of cognitive learning. We hope in this project to be able to specify other outcomes more appropriate to an informal setting—we’re starting by examining the concept of engagement.”
Rubin continues, “We are trying to get educators to determine what constitutes engagement. How do they recognize engagement? What does engagement look like in a zoo or aquarium? We think a collaborative approach to these questions—one in which educators from several different institutions are investigating the same question by examining their own practices—is most likely to lead to real progress.”
Early this spring, over 20 educators from the Phoenix Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Aquarium of the Pacific, Woodland Park Zoo, and the New England Aquarium met for their first formal gathering at the New England Aquarium to kick off the exploration of these very ideas. In a day packed full of presentations, activities, and discussions, teacher-researcher Cindy Ballenger presented anecdotes concerning her students’ engagement with animal science at the King Open School; Ann Rosebery of TERC guided participants in a detailed analysis of a video of middle school students observing a crab that had been brought to their classroom by the New England Aquarium; and John Falk and Julie Haun-Frank from Oregon State led a discussion of the meaning of being a ‘reflective practitioner’ in a zoo or aquarium. The day closed with Bekah Stendhal of the New England Aquarium leading the group in an ‘engaging’ activity designed for K-5 audiences—“Be an Animal Scientist” — which had participants modeling penguin behavior as well as recording it.
One participant commented that it was clear from the first day of presentations and discussions that ‘engagement’ can look different for individual visitors to a zoo or aquarium—and that led her to want to learn to examine “what impact we’re having, what visitors are taking away with them, and whether or not they’re changing their conservation-related behavior.”
During the second day of the ZAARC meeting, participants began to hone their observation skills by fanning out in the aquarium to observe families and school groups at the ray and shark touch tank, the octopus display and the penguin habitat. They began to plan how they would implement a “Be An Animal Scientist “ activity at their home zoos or aquariums and met with their staff mentors, who would be collaborating in their research over the next two years.
“I am so excited to be a part of this learning community focused on collaborative action research,” said another participant.
In the next year, participants from the six ZAARC partner institutions will carry out action research projects and write them up collaboratively with ZAARC staff from TERC and Oregon State. The full group will convene again next winter in Long Beach at the Aquarium of the Pacific to share the results of their research and launch a second round of action research projects. Throughout the project, ZAARC staff will be reflecting on their own practices as providers of professional development while dually determining how action research can best be used in zoo and aquarium settings.