My Fulbright project in New Zealand focuses on how primary schools teach sustainability, particularly through the lens of biodiversity. As I was thinking about how to find schools that were doing this, my advisor at Victoria University suggested contacting the Wellington Zoo to find out about their education and outreach programs. A primary school that he had also recommended visiting was scheduled to visit the zoo for their introduction to “Bush Builders,” so it was a perfect opportunity to see biodiversity education in action.
Bush Builders is a program that first introduces students to biodiversity concepts on the zoo grounds and then follows up with several visits to the school to teach students how to implement concepts there, including long-term monitoring. It is a model of community collaboration: A registered class is led through the program by the zoo, and the Wellington City Council sends experts to evaluate and propose a restoration/conservation plan for the school grounds. Zoo staff work with teachers and students to determine the state of their school grounds at the outset, teach them restoration and conservation strategies, and then help them evaluate the changes that occur over time.
I arrived early to meet the zoo staff, and soon two double-decker buses arrived to unload around 40 “Years 3-4” students, who are roughly equivalent to 2nd and 3rd graders in the US. Every student wore a hat, required gear for any outdoor activity in New Zealand (UV radiation is about 40% greater than in Maryland). Kim, the Bush Builders director, gathered students, parent chaperones and teachers, gave a quick overview of the morning, and we were off to a brushy area that had been recently cleared of invasive plants. Native species had regrown, so Kim handed each small group a sample leaf and challenged them to locate and identify certain ones that were marked by quadrats.
I joined a group and found myself in the unfamiliar – but wonderful – position of knowing far less than the students. They examined their designated plant and the leaf key they’d been given and noted important features, like the leaf’s wavy margin.
“Isn’t this tarata?” one student asked me. I looked at her blankly. “The one that smells of lemon?” she persisted. All I could do was shrug and honestly say I had no idea, but maybe we could sniff it just to be sure. It did smell lemony. Turns out its English name is … lemonwood! As the kids completed the activity, they received large puzzle pieces to take with them.
During this activity, I had the luxury of being able to step back from a teacher role and observe “off-task” behavior from a different perspective. One girl was absorbed with finding acorns on the ground and matching caps to nuts. She pocketed several, which she proudly showed off later. An adult reminded her that acorns were the seed of an invasive plant that the zoo did not want, so she should not drop them where they might grow. “I’m going to take them home and paint faces on them,” she decided. Yes, oaks are introduced and considered invasive in some places here. Another girl collected a handful of the very abundant cicada shells and carefully stored them in an empty snack bag. She had a brother who liked them, so she was bringing him back a present from the zoo. Who needs a gift shop?
The second part of the morning was spent with another ranger, Toni, who brought out a real (taxidermied) kiwi and stoat (introduced, weasel-like mammal), and a replica kiwi egg. She discussed the concepts of introduced species and competition, and then had the kids role-play scenarios with the animals. I was impressed that these artifacts were handled so casually, but it was clear that getting to touch real kiwi feathers and stoat fur made a strong impression on the students.
She then brought out a live female tuatara and let the kids stroke her. “She’s so soft!” marveled one boy. “Like jelly!” More puzzle pieces were handed out.
We ended the program at the “Meet the locals” area, which has a farmyard, penguin habitat, kunekune (furry pigs) and free-ranging sheep and chickens. The kids gathered for a wrap-up of what they had experienced, and also for the chance to meet some wild locals: forest geckos, and tree weta.
Kim passed around a weta that she had taken from a “weta hotel,” along with some valuable information for weta-holding enthusiasts: “Females have a long, sword-like ovipositor that can’t hurt you; males have big nippers on their mouth that can.”
The weta made the rounds, and when it came my way, the girl who passed it to me was reassuring. “It won’t hurt you. She’s a girl.” The weta ran up and down my arms waving its long antennae before settling on my hand. Why it didn’t use those long legs to jump away is a mystery. While some of us were holding weta, others were completing the puzzle with the pieces gathered throughout the morning. The kids did this on their own, with one insightful group moment when they all shouted, “It’s a circle!”
I left the zoo today feeling as though I had once again found my people: curious kids, engaged teachers, enthusiastic staff – all focused on learning more about how to sustain a place’s living systems. I’ll be joining the lead teacher, her students, and the zoo’s Bush Builder staff as they continue this journey over the next several months. My “biodiversity backpack” is starting to acquire some great new tools.