By: Roger Torbert, VP of Education
As part of the Birmingham Zoo’s Strategic Plan Goal to Foster Partnerships with Educators and other Educational Organizations, the Education Department has collaborated with the University of North Alabama to create a unique study abroad program for education majors. In July of 2018, Roger Torbert, Vice President for Education, traveled with UNA students and professors to the Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Throughout the three week program, students took an active role in each of Chipangali’s major conservation programs for real world experience on the front lines of African wildlife conservation.
Students got an up-close look at the workings of an animal rescue and rehabilitation center as they worked alongside the staff and volunteers at Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage. They assisted in everything from feeding and cleaning habitats of the resident animals to building a wooden platform for a leopard habitat and cleaning the muck from the duck pond. This experience allowed them to become intimately familiar with the animals that live at the orphanage such as Andre, a young baboon that came to the orphanage when he was just a few weeks old after his mother was electrocuted. In learning the stories of these animals they obtained a deeper understanding of the unfortunate consequences that come from human animal conflict.
Students also spent two days in the Motobo Hills region of Zimbabwe assisting with the Carnivore Conservation Project. While in the field, they learned track and sign methods used by researchers to locate animals in the wild. These future classroom teachers had hands on experience setting live traps and game cameras used by the field researchers to learn more about the range and behavior of leopard and hyena, the major carnivores in the area. “This hands on field experience these preservice teachers have had working side-by-side with real life researchers will be passionately referred to time and time again as they instruct their future students throughout their careers,” says Torbert.
The primary focus of their study abroad experience was Chipangali’s EPIC Kids Program. UNA students went into classrooms to teach conservation based lessons to the local children. The lessons focused on dispelling misconceptions about native animals such as the python, chameleon, hedgehog and tortoise. In addition to the classroom experience, the students also served as educators at Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage as school groups visited for field trips, telling the visitors about the resident animals using skulls, pelts and other biofacts. The students initially approached this teaching experience with uncertainty. For some of them teaching in a foreign country to children from a different culture in an underequipped classroom would be their first classroom experience of their careers. Future high school biology teacher, Kaylin Owens says, “Those kids were impressive, and it helped me realize that I would be doing any student a disservice if I didn’t give them the opportunity to reach high expectations when given the proper support and resources. There’s an important difference between seeing with pity and seeing with potential.”
In preparation for the trip, the UNA students worked closely with the staff in the Birmingham Zoo’s Education Department to learn more about the Zoo’s partnership with Chipangali and the work that we do. They also learned the finer points of conservation interpretation and were introduced to several species that they would encounter in the wild on their visit to Zimbabwe.
This study abroad opportunity is a wonderful example of meaningful collaboration between zoos, universities and conservation organizations. The program is currently in its second year at the University of North Alabama. The University of Mississippi’s School of Education is currently working to participate in the program in the coming year.