CSTA Classroom Science

San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research: Home of Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science

By Victoria Dunch

When you hear about the World Famous San Diego Zoo, what comes to mind? Most people think of a beautiful facility that supports wildlife conservation around the globe. World-class professional development programs for formal and informal educators are probably not what you would think of, but in my experience, it should be. My opinion is, of course, biased since I work as a Research Coordinator to deliver Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science. These robust, skill-building workshops are the result of years worth of admiration, tears, passion, and excitement. These are all feelings I’ve both experienced and seen reflected in educators whom I’ve had the humbling privilege to work with from around the country and the world. 

I have worked at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research for a relatively short time. I started on the Community Engagement team about four years ago, and I was incredibly excited to get involved with Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science, (now a program of the Munitz Academy for the Teaching of Science). The summer had just ended, and I was hearing incredible stories from my colleagues about all the different activities the teachers got to participate in, and I wanted in. Over the next year, I would begin to understand the amount of work that goes into preparing for the arrival of approximately 130 educators from across the country (and a select few from Kenya!) over four weeks. I helped refine the curriculum we would share with them, and procure the take-aways they would receive. I sat in on the planning meetings and reviewed the manual before it went to print. In reality, I saw very little of all the communication, the sorting through of applications, and the finding of funding sources that was taking place behind my supervisor’s door. From the Development team to our educator staff, it takes months of planning to pull it all off every year, but it’s so worth it. 

The first cohort of Teacher Workshop participants
in 2006 with San Diego Zoo Global staff.

The first cohort of Teacher Workshop participants in 2006 with San Diego Zoo Global staff.

Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science began with 12 high school life science teachers from all over Southern California in the summer of 2006, led by our fearless director, Maggie Reinbold. These teachers came to the Beckman Center, which houses the Institute for Conservation Research, to experience a week in the life of a conservation scientist. The pilot program focused on the conservation history and recovery of the California condor and was designed to bring topics of conservation science into local classrooms.

Over a decade later, it has become a nationally recognized and fully accredited program with a stellar reputation for giving teachers access to unparalleled information and experiences. To date, we have trained approximately 1500 middle and high school science teachers and informal science educators from all 50 states and 22 countries. Participants spend their days in intensive study in the Conservation Education Lab, and their evenings at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (sleeping in our Roar and Snore tents). Their time is spent engaging with staff members and acquiring invaluable new skills to take back to their home campuses. During the workshop, educators experience labs that now focus on much more than just the iconic California condor. With many new focal species in mind, participants work to frame Next Generation Science Standards in the context of wildlife conservation, exploring ways to challenge students to apply textbook knowledge of life science to current biodiversity challenges. Participants engage in activities that focus on critical issues facing endangered species using a variety of advanced technical tools and techniques. All activities and curricula are shared, ready to be implemented back in the classroom. In addition, alumni of the program have the opportunity to borrow kits containing high tech equipment their schools may be unable to provide due to cost - items such as micropipettes and telemetry tracking equipment. 

Teacher Workshop participants - July 2019

Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science is a grant-funded program that is free for participants to attend. Scholarships for this residential program include all meals and lodging, and a $500 stipend paid upon completion of the full program. It is open to any formal or informal science educator who works with middle, high school, or adult audiences (6-12+). 

We encourage applicants to apply with a partner, and that partner does not need to be a science teacher! Conservation requires multi-disciplinary approaches; therefore, we welcome educators from all fields (we’re talking to you art teachers!), so long as they have a science teacher partner from their school or campus with whom to apply. We hope this encourages cross-curricular activities based in conservation once everyone is back at school. Applications will open by early February for the upcoming summer, and they will close in mid-April. Participants are selected based on funding requirements, attempting to reach the most schools, states, and countries possible. Once selected, participants are slotted into one of the 4-5 weeks we host in Escondido, California, and are then added into a Google Classroom where they begin course material in preparation for the workshop. After the workshop, educators have the opportunity to request a certificate of completion, register for three continuing education units through the University of San Diego, and request access to our middle school and high school focused kits. 

 Hawai’i Teacher Workshop participant - June 2019

I have been incredibly fortunate to watch this program grow from something that only took place onsite at our facility over four weeks each summer, to a “road-show” starting in 2018. Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science now engages educators and their students in both Hawai’i and Kenya, places that San Diego Zoo Global has active conservation projects. Our Hawai’i and Kenya based Teacher Workshops are open to educators living in those regions and contain curriculum relevant to their students.

We know this is just the beginning. Our goal is to work with YOU and to find ways to support you in engaging your students with conservation science. If you have not yet attended Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science, then please join us in the fight to end extinction this summer and into the future.

Victoria Dunch is a Research Coordinator on the Community Engagement team at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. She can be reached at vdunch@sandiegozoo.org. Inquiries specific to Teacher Workshops in Conservation Science should be forwarded to TeacherWorkshops@sandiegozoo.org. Special editing thanks to Sasha Stallard, Education Manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for her efforts in producing this article.



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