Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga., and Zoo Miami in Miami, Fla., like some other Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited institutions, have a long history of close affiliations with local universities and colleges. These affiliations are reflected in our research programs, but also extend to include teaching courses at these universities and colleges.
These teaching opportunities provide considerable advantages to the partner zoos and are very popular and well-regarded by the students and partner universities. Our models extend beyond hosting field trips from classes at local universities, to a model where zoo staff are the instructors on record for courses and are formally part of the faculty. The majority of zoo education programs focus on K–12 programming, as well as myriad forms of guest-education activities and other forms of outreach. Formal zoo-university partnerships expand the scope and reach of a zoo’s education program to engage a demographic that rarely—and typically only informally—is reached.
Academic partnerships expand the demographic reach of the zoo, most specifically in terms of educational programs. The community-goodwill perceptions of such diversified engagement are noticeable, but difficult to measure. While the impact numbers may be moderate, the impacts themselves are substantial. Participating students will gain deep insights and experience into biology, conservation, and the role of zoos that generally are not possible with guests or other forms of educational programming.
Supervised student research in the form of class projects can act as pilot projects per the broader interests of animal care, welfare, veterinary, or research staff. Because they are enrolled for academic credits, students have incentive to conduct quality work and they have substantial amounts of time to dedicate to data collection, for example scoring behaviors from exhibits or videos using approved ethograms.
Larger-scale supervised original research projects can lead to peer-reviewed publications that support zoo missions in animal welfare, research, conservation, and education. If the partner university has a graduate program, then the relationship can encourage graduate students to conduct research at the zoo. Graduate students have even more time, incentive, and also funding to bring to the relationship. While these commitments require substantial amounts of staff time of a few persons, they bring with them invigorating intellectual stimulation for staff at many levels and often can lead to students leading projects, for example behavioral tests designed to evaluate animal welfare that can relieve zoo staff for other activities. Enrolled students function quite differently than volunteers, and that can be very beneficial and productive.
Academic partnerships can create opportunities for staff to audit college courses for professional development. Occasionally, we will offer a course at night specifically to encourage participation of staff with full-time work schedules. Those classes create a wonderfully diverse teaching environment for all involved. The courses can serve as powerful recruiting tools, attracting innovative people into zoo careers that they were unlikely to have considered otherwise. Finally, and quite importantly, academic partnerships include access to the sometimes massive infrastructure and technology of the university including access to libraries, analytical equipment, and seminars.
On multiple occasions, we have procured reagents or supplies for unexpected veterinary procedures because someone at our partner university had them in the lab. Most zoos do not have equipment for things such as PCR assays or CT scans, but many universities do. At an AZA training course, a bird keeper at Zoo Atlanta learned a technique to conduct fluorescent microscopy to evaluate presence of sperm in an egg. Upon returning, she was able to access an epifluorescent microscope and necessary reagents and filters at Georgia Tech at no cost.
Instructors at the collegiate level typically have a PhD in a relevant field such as psychology or biology. Teaching a full course is a substantial time commitment for the instructor during the academic term, so the hosting zoo should be prepared to accommodate such. Class times are inflexible, and zoo schedules and priorities are fluid, so the zoo and especially the instructor need to be aware of the need to be quite flexible and agile in order to accommodate planned course activities in ways that do not compromise animal welfare, staff routines, or guest experience. Student access to the zoo must be arranged. The formal relationship with the university typically is via an adjunct faculty position for the zoo staff member that will be leading the course. Universities have varying policies on how adjunct status is approved and conferred.
As in any partnership, it can take some effort on both sides to realize the benefits. Diplomacy is crucial because the cultural differences between the institutions can be real and can be fueled by ignorance-based prejudices on both sides. Accordingly, the best path forward is in identifying key qualified, and interested, staff at the zoo and approaching the chair of the appropriate department. Ideally, the department will realize what an unequaled opportunity zoo-based courses offer for their students. Simply put, no university in the world has elephants. Behavioral observations on elephants are logistically simple to arrange, really engage students in ways that few other courses can do, and with requisite guidance from the instructor, their data can be of enormous value to the zoo. Both institutions in these partnerships gain considerable advantages that otherwise are unavailable to them.
Zoo Miami has an established partnership for undergraduate training in conservation research with Florida International University (FIU). In 2021, Zoo Miami and FIU launched a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program focused on conservation science, funded by the National Science Foundation. This program, which is the first of its kind among zoos, provides funded research traineeships for 10 college students from throughout the U.S. to join Zoo Miami’s research team each summer. Students work with mentors at the Zoo or FIU to conduct supervised, but student-owned research projects focused on field conservation, animal behavior, animal health, or informal STEM learning at the Zoo. By providing paid research training positions (that include stipends, housing, food allowance, and travel costs), the REU program encourages participation by students who want an opportunity to gain an entry into zoo research careers, but that may not be able to afford to take unpaid volunteer positions to gain experience.
Zoo Miami has also offered a biannual graduate-level workshop on zoo conservation biology for students from FIU since 2017. This workshop provides an in-depth introduction to graduate students interested in exploring zoo-based careers or opportunities for collaboration on zoo research projects. At most universities, graduate students have few formal opportunities to engage with zoo-based conservation efforts during graduate programs, and few formal introductions to zoo-based programs and opportunities. Zoos and academia are often siloed in distinct cultures, languages, values, and priorities, but this graduate workshop serves as a gentle introduction to zoo environments.
Zoo Atlanta has formal relationships with Georgia State University, University of Georgia, Agnes Scott College, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of North Georgia, and Kennesaw State University. We have close affiliations and often host students from additional universities and colleges in the region. Our primary teaching partners are Georgia State and Georgia Tech, where we teach courses such as Conservation Biology, Research & Experimental Design, Zoo Biology, or Vertebrate Biology. Our partnerships have encouraged an innovative program in conservation technology, in which engineering students have devised several devices that directly augment animal welfare at the Zoo, and have remarkable potential applications being tested at this time for deployment to in situ conservation programs. Collaborative research by Zoo biologists and physicists have produced a series of projects on the biomechanics of snake locomotion, including development of bio-inspired search-and-rescue robots, that have generated considerable attention in major international media.
Research led by undergraduates is contributing substantially to our knowledge in the under-studied field of reptile cognition, which can have direct applications for improving welfare for Zoo animals. Evaluation of animal enrichment programs is time-intensive, and undergraduate researchers have provided many hours of solid observational data that Zoo staff otherwise would not be able to produce. Zoo Atlanta has published more than 15 peer-reviewed papers co-authored by undergraduate students on topics ranging from behavior to anatomy to microbiology.
Forming an academic partnership and opening the zoo for courses and student research can fundamentally expand the educational impact of a zoo or aquarium. The benefits can include professional development for staff, access to libraries and technology, and an army of eager and talented students that can directly contribute to many aspects of the institutional mission, especially in the form of animal welfare and research. Please feel free to contact the authors for examples of syllabi, course descriptions, or questions.
Joseph Mendelson is director of research at Zoo Atlanta and adjunct professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Steven Whitfield is a conservation and research specialist at Zoo Miami and research associate at Florida International University.