Big Cats, Zoos, and Kid Explorers

Guest bloggers Dr. Alex Oberle and Mollie Ullestad represent the Geographic Alliance of Iowa (GAI), a National Geographic-supported organization that works to advance geography education in Iowa. Alex is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Northern Iowa and the Coordinator for the GAI. Mollie is a Geography Education student at the University of Northern Iowa and the Undergraduate Research Assistant for the GAI.

This is part four of Alex and Mollie’s series on big cats in the classroom. Read the previous post here.

Blog_4_Image_3What do you get when you add together 60 5th graders, a three-hour bus ride, rain, and big cats? A rewarding trip to the zoo! In May, the South Hamilton Elementary 5th grade took a field trip to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.  While this trip hs a more than 20 year tradition at the school, it was especially significant this year as it was linked with the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and a big cat mascot visit to the school three months earlier. Despite rainy weather, the students were ready, excited, and full of enthusiasm while waiting to board the buses to Omaha. Two bathroom breaks, a lunch stop, and a few hours later, the students arrived at the zoo in their matching orange t-shirts, ready to see big cats and other endangered animals they had researched over the course of the spring

Throughout the day, the students roamed the zoo in small groups and viewed various biomes, ecosystems, animals, and of course, big cats! The students loved seeing the lions, tigers, leopards, and other cats and were surprised at how big they actually were. The 5th graders watched an IMAX movie on humpback whales and visited with the big cats’ zookeeper to hear about their care and training. The students asked the zookeeper a lot of great questions, such as “How much do they eat each day?,” “How do you feed them?,” and “How long do they live?” The zookeeper explained that the cats, as well as the other animals, live as authentic lives as they can within their enclosures, and that their purpose at the zoo is to show people that animals and the environment are critical.


At the end of day, looking out at the kids scrambling up the lion statue for their group photo, you realize that the zoo finale, and this whole project itself, is about so much more. It’s certainly about more than university mascots and field trips. It’s even about more than these 5th graders’ first ever research project, and it transcends big cats too. All of this is about belief and action: believing that you can make a difference in this world and acting on that belief. Out in that crowd of students somebody now has a spark that will eventually grow to light the way forward for a lifelong interest in exploration and making a positive impact. Which South Hamilton student will be the next Peggy Whitson, the 55 year old Iowa astronaut who grew up outside a town of 15 people and pushed back against gender and age stereotypes to be the oldest female astronaut to travel to space? Which 5th grader will walk in the footsteps of Norman Borlaug, another small town Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is credited with agricultural innovations that saved millions of people around the world from starvation?

The state of Iowa, and the Midwest as a whole, has a cherished tradition of making a difference in our towns, our country, and our planet and we, too, believe in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. Some explorers need underwater cameras or a dog sled team. Our Kid Explorers only need a little inspiration and matching orange t-shirts. Go Kid Explorers: there’s no limit to what you can do!Blog_4_Image_1

We thank the Henry Doorly Zoo for the special big cats presentation and for the more than 20 year commitment to hosting South Hamilton Elementary. Thank you to Julie Ullestad and Cathy Stakey for organizing and leading the zoo trip and for enthusiastically integrating this project into their classrooms and curriculum. Thanks to all who helped make the zoo trip a success, especially the bus drivers and parent volunteers.

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