Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science (MoZAICS) Project

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in collaboration with Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning to support the Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science (MoZAICS) project. MoZAICS focuses on developing an evidence-based framework of inclusive practices for zoos and aquariums to support science learning for individuals with autism across the full aquarium and zoo experience including the general visit, programs, exhibits, internships, volunteering, and employment opportunities. The project will also support building a community of practice of zoo and aquarium practitioners dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of autistic individuals and toward building an overall strategy of inclusion across the AZA community. 

Over the four-year project duration, MoZAICS will develop a research-informed framework, tools and strategic vision for zoo/aquarium practitioners and institutions to support autistic individuals across the full spectrum of the zoo/aquarium experience including the general visit; exhibits; programs and events; and volunteer, internship and employment opportunities. The project is designed as two phases:

  1. Research and development of a framework of inclusive practices and tools for supporting autistic individuals and
  2. Expand a network of early adopters to build a community of practice around inclusive practices and an overall implementation strategy.

The framework will be informed through a state of the field study across the zoo and aquarium field that includes a landscape study and needs assessment as well as a review of literature that synthesizes existing research across disciplines for developing inclusive practices for autistic individuals in zoos and aquariums. The second phase of the study will focus on sharing the framework and tools with practitioners across the aquarium and zoo field for feedback and reflection to develop an overall strategy for broader implementation and expanding the existing network of zoo and aquarium professionals to build a community of practice dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of autistic individuals across the full aquarium and zoo experience. A process evaluation conducted as part of MoZAICS will explore how the approach taken in this project may be more broadly applied in understanding and advancing inclusion for other audiences historically underserved or marginalized by zoos and aquariums.

The MoZAICS project represents one of the first of its kind to support autistic audiences within the zoo/aquarium context and is the first to look at the full experience of autistic patrons to zoos and aquariums across programs/events, exhibits, volunteering, internship, and employment opportunities.

Interested in joining our State of the Field Study? Sign up HERE!

Co-Principal Investigators

Kelly Riedinger, Ph.D. –  Senior Research & Program Lead in Informal, K-12 and Connected Learning, STEM Research Center at Oregon State University

Lauren Weaver, M.S., BCBA, LBA-TN – Director of Community Engagement, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD

Kari Hart, M.Ed. - Director, Professional Development and Education, AZA

Project Team

Victoria Bonebrake, M.A. – Research and Evaluation Assistant, Oregon State University

Blaire Donnelly-Mason, CTRS, MSRLS – Program Manager, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD

Brian Johnson, Ph.D. – Co-founder, Inform Evaluation & Research

Joy Kubarek, Ph.D. – Co-founder, Inform Evaluation & Research

Zachary Williams, B.S. – MD/Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience and Hearing & Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt University

Project Advisors

Emelyne Bingham, DMA – Principal Senior Lecturer in Music Theory and Cognition, Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University

Louise Bradshaw – Director of Education, Saint Louis Zoo

Karen Burns – Guest Engagement Supervisor, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

Chad Fifer – Chief Operating Officer, Boonshoft Museum of Discovery

Dr. Kaite Gotham – Assistant Professor, Rowan University

Dana Murphy – VP Learning & Community Engagement, Lincoln Park Zoo

Dr. Kristie Patten – Vice Dean of Academic Affairs; Professor of Occupational Therapy, New York University

Grayson Ponti – Conservation Interpreter, Dallas Zoo

Christine Reich, Ph.D. – Chief Learning Officer, Museum of Science

Mandy Rispoli, Ph.D., BCBA-D – Quantitative Foundation Bicentennial Professor, University of Virginia

Amy Rutherford – Vice President of Education, Birmingham Zoo

Dr. Zachary Warren – Executive Director, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD

Keith Winsten – Executive Director, Brevard Zoo

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