“All right – who’s ready to go into the park and do some science?”
The yell was impressive – but so was the quiet focus that followed as Ms. Hastler’s first grade class lined up to put on their yellow waterproof “science jackets.”
It was the very first in-the-park science week for Wildlife Champions at Lister Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, and the 16 first-graders were bubbling with excitement.
“What kind of animals do you think we’ll see in the park?” asked Sam Hain, Wildlife Champions specialist at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
“A fox!” “Frogs!” “Birds!” called students eagerly, as they bundled up and followed Hain out the school’s back door and up to Swan Creek Park, immediately behind.
Wildlife Champions is an award-winning partnership between the Zoo, its umbrella agency Metro Parks Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools that’s designed to teach empathy for wildlife through nature-based science. Working closely with teachers, staff from the Zoo, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Tacoma Nature Center offer weekly classes for every class in all grades that hit Next Generation science standards, as well as math, language, arts and Washington’s Since Time Immemorial Indigenous studies. The program also includes free field trips to the Zoo and Northwest Trek.
The program just completed an initial five years at South Tacoma’s Arlington Elementary, and now that teachers there have transitioned to teaching most classes on their own with Metro Parks staff support, Zoo staff have started the first full year of programming at Lister. Since the beginning of the previous school year, Metro Parks staff have been working with teachers and administrators at Lister to customize the program to both the school and Swan Creek Park.
“The Lister teachers and Zoo team used the Arlington curriculum as a template and modified the lessons and activities to fit the needs, values and culture of Lister’s staff and students,” explains Liz Hines, a Zoo staff coordinator who oversees Wildlife Champions.
But it’s the hands-on aspect that kids really like. The first two weeks of each learning unit happen in the classroom or schoolyard, exploring local mini-habitats. The third week of classes move out into a local park, and a final week rounds everything off back in class. Activities range from making windsocks to chalk art about salmon life cycles, planting camas bulbs and field trips to both the Zoo and Northwest Trek. They encourage curiosity, as well as stewardship for local parks.
What’s ground-breaking about Wildlife Champions, though, is how it teaches empathy for nature. The project is rooted in a major study done by Zoo conservation engagement staff, in collaboration with Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, investigating how psychological principles of empathy could be applied to behavior change benefitting nature and wildlife. Research shows that urban children – especially those in high-diversity, historically underserved neighborhoods – have less and less connection to nature. And Lister Elementary is located within one of Tacoma’s most diverse and traditionally underserved neighborhoods: the Salishan community on the city’s Eastside, which also boasts the vast forest, canyon and salmon-bearing stream of Swan Creek Park.
“A lot of these students have never been into this park before,” explained Lynn Hastler, smiling as her students jumped and skipped along the trail. “They’re told it’s not safe, and many aren’t even allowed to play outside. So this is wonderful.”
Emani, with dark braids tinted hot pink at the ends to match her shoes, agrees: “I’m excited to do science. But the park is a bit scary. It’s kind of dark.”
Along the way, Hain and co-educator Kendra Vance stop the chattering line and ask for complete hush: “Let’s use our ears! What can you hear?”
In the silence that follows, a bird calls, then another. Red and orange leaves swish in the breeze. The smell of Douglas fir hangs sweet in the air. And Hastler reaches up to stroke some velvety hazelnut leaves.
“Feel how soft these are!” she encourages her students.
Finally, the class reaches a picnic shelter and settles down on a blue tarp. Hain announces that today they’re going to study ants, and everyone’s thrilled. He reads a picture book – “Are You an Ant?” – pausing for questions, and to ask students to think about whether their lives and needs are similar or different to an ant’s. (You’d be surprised: ants AND humans both have multiple rooms in their homes, feed their babies and elders, take out the garbage and carry food home, for instance.) It’s all part of learning empathy.
Then Hain jumps up. “Who wants to see if we can find ants?” he asks.
A chorus of excited squeals, and after learning about Swan Creek Park’s dominant ant species (thatching ants) the class follows him along another short trail. They learn the ant version of the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song (“Head, Thorax, Abdomen!”) from educator Brianna Charbonnel of Tacoma Nature Center, then split into two groups to play a game assembling a giant ant body part puzzle. The activity is perfect for learning both ant anatomy and teamwork, and there’s plenty of singing to go with it, along with gently poking friends with pretend “antennae.”
Finally, the highlight of the day: Finding ants.
“Now we know what an ant looks like, let’s look for them,” call Charbonnel, Vance and Hain. “Remember to put rocks back if you turn them over – that’s somebody’s home right there.”
It’s a chilly fall day, and the Swan Creek Park ants seem more inclined to stay warm inside their homes – another point of empathy, perhaps.
But then a call rings out: “I found an ant mound!!”
Sure enough, there it is, and as the class gathers round in awe, a Zoo educator and volunteer pass around two tiny clear collection boxes into which they’ve placed an ant.
All eyes open wide. “Oh my gosh!” “I see the legs!” “That looks like a spider,” come the comments.
At last, it’s time to go back to school. As the line wends its way back along the trails, you can almost touch the energy and delight.
“It was awesome!” smiles Emani. “I learned about ants!”
Was this a good way to learn science?
“Yes!” cries Antonio, jumping for emphasis.
“I wish we’d seen spiders,” adds Naomi.
“This is so great,” comments Hastler. “It’s definitely a big event for these kids! They learned a lot – we didn’t learn anything about ants before now. This, for me, is real science, getting hands-on in the field, learning respect for nature. That’s so hard to teach just from books.”
“Wildlife Champions is a great addition to Lister,” says principal Kristi King. “Our students now have the opportunity to explore the park in our own backyard in a new way. The nature experts from Point Defiance Zoo combine with the Lister staff’s knowledge of science and social studies standards to really enhance our students’ learning, and the emphasis on empathy has a strong connection to our work in social-emotional learning. It’s wonderful to have the program here.”
Charbonnel leads the class back down the hill to school, making even the journey fun by pretending to fly like birds or flow like water, and finally teaching a short but successful lesson in how to take off your jacket rightside out.
“I loved how excited they were, just getting used to having the outdoors as a classroom,” sums up Hain. “This week made me really eager to see the program grow.”