Educator Spotlight: Close-Up View of the Zoo

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Sarah Navarro, this week’s Educator of the Week, is the curriculum development manager at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. To support students’ exploration of human coexistence with wildlife, she guided them in a BioBlitz investigating the local flora and fauna living alongside the exotic zoo animals. A BioBlitz is an event that brings together community members to find and identify as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time.

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Sarah Navarro holds Harley, a blue and gold macaw. Photo by Jerran Orwig

Tell us about the activity you developed as your capstone for the Nat Geo Educator Certification Program.

We did a mini-Bioblitz of the yard behind our Education Center at the Cincinnati Zoo. This space, while not large, is an urban oasis of native plants. The BioBlitz was the culminating activity of a Zoo Troop program for seventh- and eighth-graders. It allowed them to participate in a real citizen science project and connect with guest zoo experts, who helped them identify the birds, plants, and invertebrates that they found. This activity is now part of the Zoo Troop curriculum cycle.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here. 

You work at the Cincinnati Zoo, surrounded by plenty of exotic animals, but you had participants in this activity focus on local flora and fauna. How did you choose this angle?

While my location would make it easy to only focus on exotic flora and fauna, we find it important to remind program participants about the amazing local wildlife that they can see every day as well. This Zoo Troop program was called “Shared Spaces and Common Places,” and it explored how people living in different continents coexist with wildlife that share their space.

For the last week, we focused on North America, so a BioBlitz was a natural tie-in when it came to shared spaces. It was a great way to bring home the concept of sharing our backyards, schoolyards, etc. with wildlife and even welcoming them with what we plant or provide and how we care for our yards. It also set up a valuable discussion on how we could make our zoo more wildlife-friendly.

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Program participants and their families plant trees. Photo by Sarah Navarro

Students participating in the BioBlitz had the idea of planting trees to better support the ecosystem, and you empowered them by giving them the opportunity to make it happen! What was the reaction from students who took part?

I LOVED that we were able to do this with not just the students, but their whole families and the families of younger Zoo Troopers. Our tree-planting coordinator at the zoo’s EcOhio farm explained how these trees would be a good windbreak and help provide a good buffer zone between the road and the property. The students were really excited about planting something that would live and grow on zoo property for years to come and help wildlife that lived on the property. A few asked if they could come back to check on “their tree” and take pictures by it to show how much they and their trees grow over the years.

A student uses a hand lens to examine arthropods during the BioBlitz. Photo by Sarah Navarro

How would you describe your teaching philosophy or your mission as an educator?

My mission is to provide hands-on experiences that allow opportunities for discovery and wonder, as well as encourage critical thinking, individuality, and the finding of one’s voice and unique perspective within a safe community. Kids have fantastic ideas and have such great capacity for creativity, kindness, and mindfulness. I want to provide a space and curriculum that encourages that.

I love this quote by Rachel Carson because it sums up the feel that I want our Zoo Troop classes to have:

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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