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The Pittsburgh Zoo Teaches Youth Science Through Hands-On Inquiry

More than 400 students have completed the zoo's program, which includes a summer session where students design, execute, & present their research projects.

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The following article is second part of a two part series on teaching authentic science inquiry. You can find the first article here .

While working toward my doctorate in molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh, I interned in the Education Department at the

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Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium . In that role, I taught and observed students involved in the KidScience program. KidScience started in 1999 as a way to teach adolescents about conservation using a hands-on, authentic inquiry approach. Since its inception, more than 400 students have completed the program, which includes a three-week summer session where students design, execute, and present their own research projects.


KidScience students visit with a Masai giraffe behind the scenes at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Mandy Revak, the KidScience and Zoo U. coordinator at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, has worked with the KidScience program for 10 years. Mandy’s passion for engaging teenagers in inquiry-based science, animal behavior research, and real-world conservation is informed by her background in animal behavior and working with an inquiry-based Project Dragonfly partner program on her way to a MA in zoology. She and I recently sat down to chat about the KidScience program, how the program incorporates features of authentic science inquiry, and practical considerations for designing and implementing authentic science inquiry with middle school students. Keep in mind that although KidScience extends beyond what is typically attainable in a formal classroom environment, the principles highlighted here can be adapted to a variety of educational settings.

Melanie Peffer: Tell us about the structure of the KidScience program. How do you prepare students to engage in authentic science inquiry?

Mandy Revak: The KidScience program is broken up into two years. From October to May, students meet every other Saturday. After the end of the school year, students spend three weeks designing and executing their own research projects. During the first year, students build skills specific for animal behavior research while also learning about issues related to conservation such as the bushmeat crisis . During the first week of the three-week summer session, students work with the instructors to pick an animal to study, generate feasible research questions, and design and plan their research methods. The following two weeks are spent collecting and analyzing data, identifying methodological flaws, and preparing their data for presentation at the end-of-program symposium. The second-year students follow a similar schedule, but they develop more complex projects that either build on their previous work or involve multiple hypotheses and research questions.

MP: What kinds of projects have the students completed?

MR: Students have completed a wide range of projects related to animal behavior, visitor behavior, and general zoo operations. For example, one year a keeper requested that students study the social dynamics of the zoo’s howler monkey population. Students have also examined whether zoo visitors will spend more time at an exhibit if they witness feeding time. Between 2007 and 2011, students investigated different test plots on the green roof at our Water’s Edge facility to determine which plants are viable options for green roofs within Pittsburgh’s climactic zone.

MP: Engaging students in authentic inquiry can be challenging. Where do students have trouble? How do you support students in overcoming these hurdles while still allowing them to retain autonomy?

MR: Identifying research questions is challenging for students. On the first day of the program, students walk around the zoo with no guidance and are told to pick an animal and observe its behaviors. Back in the classroom, we ask the students to write three possible research questions. Students then meet with us to talk about which questions are feasible in terms of time constraints and maintaining the health and safety of students and animals. We also have lessons specifically geared toward how to ask research questions and how to identify variables that are feasible to test.

Sometimes students have trouble staying on task during data collection, saying, “I already did this once.” We use this as an educational opportunity to teach multiple observations and the importance of day-to-day variability (e.g. temperature, number of visitors in the zoo) when observing animal behavior.

Many of our students are high achievers, and are embarrassed to mention methodological flaws of their studies. They also worry about the messiness of real-life scientific data since it’s not “perfect.” Part of our role is to coach students through these struggles to understand that flaws and failure are a normal part of the scientific process. There is no right or wrong answer and you aren’t a bad scientist if you have to go back and start over. This is the part of real science that most people don’t see and requires work on our part to check in with the students and make sure they are not discouraged by failed experiments.


KidScience students observe California sea lions and collect behavioral data.

MP: You have been working with the KidScience program for 10 years. Do you feel that the extra time and energy spent in creating an authentic inquiry experience for the kids is worth it?

MR: Absolutely, the time investment is worth it. When students start the KidScience program, they like science but have an understanding of it in terms of right or wrong and they don’t realize that this isn’t how science works. It definitely takes guidance and hard work to help students understand how science really works. However, kids are naturally curious, and it’s worth the extra work when the kids understand the world better.

Also, adolescence is a time when students, especially girls, lose interest in science. We’ve found that our alumni (including girls) remain engaged with science throughout high school and college. KidScience alumni contact me and say that they were more prepared for their college classes because they remember learning these things in middle school as part of the KidScience program.

MP: What advice do you have for other teachers who would like to implement authentic inquiry experiences into their classrooms?

MR: The best advice I can give is to develop activities that harness the student’s curiosity. Although we are lucky to be situated at a zoo/aquarium, our model can be used in any setting, including schools on any time scale. Are there woods near your school? A garden? A stream? What is a question that students could investigate within school borders? Listen to your students, explore your school—what are students interested in, and how can you harness that to create an authentic inquiry experience?

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