Congo Gorilla Forest
There”’’s a gorilla in my classroom!
A 6.5-acre “exhibit” within a major urban zoo places humans in the midst of the animals”'’ world. The primary animals are giant lowland gorillas who live, with 300 other animals of 75 species native to the Congo, in an outdoor and indoor setting that replicates an African rain forest landscape. The inside exhibit fulfils the standard of a first-rank natural history museum, except that here, the collections are all alive.
How the exhibit and the education center impact learning
The mission of the exhibit is to use technology, art, and architecture, as well as the very proximity of wild animals in “nature,” to inspire (literally) millions of visitors to care about vanishing gorillas and wild habitats in Africa - and then enable them to take direct action to protect important rain forests.
The mission of the educational space is to create materials and programming to make the exhibit an accessible and exciting learning experience for students, teachers, and families. Toward this goal, the century-old zoo created a three-step approach:
(1) To effect an historic change in its policy that now acknowledges the importance of linking education directly to exhibit-going: the zoo has mandated that all teachers receive training before bringing their classes to the exhibit.
(2) To coordinate the development of materials directly with teacher and parent workshops: materials are constantly monitored for effectiveness, relevance, and accessibility.
(3) To create a robust family outreach to underserved communities in the region: parents, not just teachers, are involved in pre-exhibit training workshops at the education center.
To support the exhibit”’’s goal to foster an emotional connection with issues of wildlife conservation, visitors exit the exhibit through the Conservation Choices Pavilion, where touch-screen consoles bracketed by totem poles let them vote their entry fee toward a variety of named zoo conservation projects in Africa. This final choice-based activity links wildlife conservation advocacy with the intense experiences of training, teaching, and viewing. This creates a powerful link between classroom-type teaching and active experience that educators regard as the most powerful model for learning
The US Department of Education”’’s first principle of facility design is for learning environments that support “students creating rather than re-creating knowledge; students doing rather than just receiving information.” The very essence of this design is to provide all the necessary conditions for students to create their own meaning from an intensely positive personal experience. The immediacy of knowledge transmitted by teachers and parents fosters the understanding of wildlife, their relationship to man, and the importance of active conservation efforts to their - and our - continued existence.
Innovations in the planning, programming, and design process that supported the realization of the mission
From the beginning of the planning phase, educators spoke directly to planners, architects, animal management specialists, and wildlife conservation professionals. During the formative evaluation of this project, the zoo”’’s educational department appointed a national advisory panel of experts in environmental science, inquiry-based learning, and informal education, a local teacher advisory panel, and a consultant selected form the national panel. A nationally known environmental zoologist also served as an outside editorial consultant who reviewed parent and teacher materials, particularly during the final phases or revision.
Together, architects, landscape architects, artists, and other exhibition designers worked steadily for seven years. The national advisory panel contributed insights regarding learning stations and concepts during early stages of educational materials development, exhibit design, and construction, while the local teachers advisory panel worked closely with educators during the final year before the exhibit”’’s completion. The teacher advisory panel also helped the zoo”’’s education department meet on the early objectives of this project, “to work with a group of school teachers to develop standards-rich, inquiry-based activities for children in grades K-7.”
Essential to the exhibit”’’s design was the need to keep humans and gorillas safe, yet provide as many opportunities for close viewing as possible. The 3-ply, tempered laminate glass was designed to safeguard and enhance the viewing experience for both humans and gorillas. The windows of the education center look directly onto the “penthouse,” the gorillas”'’ indoor family residence area, so that training classes and workshops appear to be held in the treetops, with the two species in breathtakingly close proximity.
Subsequent evaluation of the exhibit”’’s educational mission
One source of information has been the growing number of teachers and parents who have undergone training and then guided students through the exhibit. After the exhibit”’’s first year, these teachers received surveys from the zoo that asked about their experiences in training and its applicability to their students. A majority of respondents have recommended the workshop to other teachers. A majority also indicated that they believe “students can derive substantial educational benefit from voting on conservation projects.” Positive responses were obtained for every survey question that asked teachers to rate aspects of the training and exhibit on a five-point scale. Respondents also gave favorable ratings to workshop organization, presentation, and the amount of time devoted to content and to questions.
The educational center has thus far trained over 2,000 teachers and 2,700 parents, who have served as guides and educators for the more than 150,000 school children who have formally visited the exhibit to date. While the zoo has several other educational programs in place, this center has become the location of choice for all classroom-based projects throughout the organization.