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Bring Back Bison

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Living Classroom

College students live and learn at the Virginia campus of the Smithsonian's National Zoo as part of a unique partnership with George Mason University.

by Cindy Han

Photos by Smithsonian-Mason students

Smashing freeze-dried poop with a rubber mallet makes for an interesting day in the life of a college student. And this is no ordinary poop—it’s the feces of Eld’s deer, an endangered species that lives at the Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Virginia.

Fifteen young women and men, sporting lab coats over jeans, are in a laboratory at CRC’s vet hospital, pulverizing the Eld’s deer poop into powder. Fortunately for the students, the feces of herbivores doesn’t smell too bad. The students will later use the powder to create liquid samples they will analyze for hormone levels. As the students have learned, studying an animal’s feces can yield a great deal of information—including whether or not the animal is pregnant.

A day in the lab is just one of many hands-on learning opportunities for this cohort of students enrolled in the Smithsonian-Mason Semester, one of the Smithsonian-Mason Global Conservation Education Studies programs. The students spend a semester living in dorm rooms at the Zoo’s sprawling campus in the Shenandoah Valley. In less than four months, they take 16 credits worth of classes taught by prominent scientists and educators from the Zoo, as well as George Mason University (Mason) and other institutions. It’s all part of a partnership between the National Zoo and Mason, officially kicked off in October 2008, to offer an academic “living and learning” community based at the Zoo’s 3,200-acre grounds in Virginia.

George Mason students
Zoo scientist Budhan Pukazhenthi teaches the students how to stain slides. (Lauren Reiter)

Making a Model

“What we’re doing here is unique,” says Tom Wood, who, as director of the Mason Center for Conservation Studies, helped start the Smithsonian-Mason program. “There are so many positives coming out of this. We’re integrating the incredible resources of the Zoo and the university. We’re providing an interdisciplinary learning environment that can serve a wide array of students. And we’re creating a community of students and faculty who are passionate about conservation.”

The Smithsonian-Mason program is now in its second year housing college students on the CRC campus for a semester, but it really started years ago. The program’s origins can be traced to a friendship that formed between Wood and the Zoo’s acting director, Steve Monfort, back when both were starting their Ph.D. research at CRC in the late 1980s. Over the years, the scientists talked about ways to improve science-related education— particularly in conservation biology. After Wood began teaching at Mason and Monfort took on a leadership role at the Zoo, a natural link began to surface. The two exchanged ideas about how their institutions could join forces to address the gaps in conservation education.

“By the mid-1990s, Tom and I realized that given the environmental threats to our planet, there could be no greater goal than to invest in educating and training the next generation of conservation professionals. We felt a sense of urgency to act and so we began looking for ways to expand the partnership between the Zoo and Mason,” says Monfort. Over the next several years, they laid the groundwork for faculty and students alike to take courses in conservation at CRC. Their dream was to help create a national model for a learning community where conservation could be taught in an interdisciplinary, interactive way. The result is the Smithsonian-Mason Semester.

A Good Combination

The partnership has blossomed into a full-fledged program that provides a rigorous academic semester to the 15 students in this year’s cohort. The students come from diverse backgrounds. Many are Mason conservation biology students in their junior year—the optimal time to use the program as a springboard to internships and other experiences before completing their undergraduate education. Some are younger or older, looking for inspiration as to what field to pursue or seeking contacts for a future career. Some come from very different fields, from women’s studies to French. The program is also open to students beyond Mason; this year, a few students from other universities heard about the program and were invited to join.

Student Ricky Hutchinson

Smithsonian-Mason student Ricky Hutchinson learns lab techniques during his semester in the program. (Peyton Morris)

“I came here because it’s the only program of its kind,” says Lauren Reiter, a zoology major from the University of Miami in Ohio. “It’s been a great opportunity to meet scientists from all these different fields and to hear how they got their start.” Echoing this sentiment, several of Reiter’s fellow students cite networking as the number one benefit of the program.

As for the faculty who currently help teach the various Smithsonian-Mason classes, they not only impart knowledge, but gain valuable experience themselves. The instructors are a diverse group, including veterinarians, geneticists, mathematicians, economists, and photographers.

“They are doing this because they believe in it,” says Miles Roberts, a wildlife biologist and curator of the Zoo’s Amazonia Science Gallery, who guides the students on their semester-long research projects. He says he and other instructors keep some basic questions in mind as they teach the students: “What can we do to help them? What would we have benefited from when we were starting out? How can we open doors for them?”

To train the future generation of conservation biologists, he knows the trick is to “get those light bulbs to go on,” to ignite the students to act on their interests in helping the environment through whatever field of study they pursue. That’s why he and the other instructors focus on more than just lecturing about science; they touch upon topics such as how to get a job, how to talk to people, and how to work on policy issues.

“Of course they need to learn about ecology, reproductive biology, and all of that,” says Roberts. “But so much of this involves other areas: economics, culture, conflict issues. If you’re going to be a conservationist, you have to be versed in all of those other things. Maybe you want to save tigers, but maybe you’ll never even see a tiger— instead, you might work with a community or an organization to help tigers.”

This is School?

One sure sign that the Smithsonian-Mason students are not in an ordinary academic setting comes every day around 2 a.m.—it’s the sound of barking. “The first time I heard it, I halfway woke up and thought, ‘Whose dog is that?’” recalls Virginia Griffith, a Mason junior studying conservation education. “Then I realized it was coming from the maned wolves. They were barking not far away from my room. How cool is that?”

The maned wolves are just some of the resident animals at CRC that students are able to see and learn about throughout the semester. The students walk by red pandas on their way to and from class, and clouded leopards and rare birds such as Micronesian kingfishers are housed nearby. Some students help Zoo staff take care of cranes, Eld’s deer, and other animals.

But students who enter the program must be aware that they’re not simply coming to interact with animals. Instead, the wildlife that inhabit the grounds of CRC serve as a daily reminder of why we should care about conservation—for the protection of these creatures and our natural world.

A typical day in the life of an SI-Mason student may include classes, off-site trips, or hands-on lab or field work. One day may be spent in the classroom learning about conflicts between humans and wildlife; another may be a session in conflict resolution. From biodiversity to ecotourism, the topics covered demonstrate the wide reach of conservation studies.

“The learning here is integrated across all disciplines,” explains Jennifer Buff, academic program manager for the Zoo’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES). “Normally, a college student might go to a class, leave, then go to another completely separate class—and there’s often a disconnect. This program has different courses all woven together into a real picture of conservation biology.”

Some days are made up of hands-on learning. As part of their semester, the students took trips to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; learned about nature photography and tested their skills at local protected areas such as Shenandoah River State Park; and tried their hands at wildlife monitoring using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) equipment. In the laboratory, they had that fun day of poop-smashing, but also learned basic lab skills such as how to use a micropipette, how to perform an assay, and how to interpret hormone data. The next week in the lab was spent learning about freezing animal semen for use in artificial insemination—an area of expertise that the Zoo’s scientists are uniquely qualified to teach.

Throughout the Smithsonian-Mason semester, the students also work on group case studies. A major element of the program, the case study calls for each student to do extensive research culminating in a written paper and oral presentation at the end of the semester. The project pulls together what the students learn, from writing skills to understanding human-wildlife dynamics. One group chose to look at the relations between humans and Asian elephants in India, while another is analyzing ecotourism in Nicaragua.

From start to finish, the program encourages students to enhance their knowledge and to build upon their idealism and desire to make a difference. It also offers practical benefits. Meeting so many people from diverse fields gives the students an abundance of opportunities to network and pave the way to further studies or careers in conservation.

Kristen Donahue and Bob Tope
Smithsonian-Mason student Kristen Donahue and photographer Bob Tope discuss nature photography, one of the topics covered during the semester. (Lauren Reiter)

Life in Close Quarters

Beyond the academic side, being a part of the Smithsonian-Mason program offers its unique brand of extracurricular activity as well. Students are generally finished with the day’s classes or activities by late afternoon, so what do they do after that? “Homework,” is the most common reply. The grounds of CRC, a former military depot located within a rural community, offer little in the way of entertainment.

A ping-pong table in the dining hall gets regular use. “We all play,” says Virginia Griffith. “It’s great for letting your energy out.” There are occasional movie nights, and some students have brought in videogame systems to share. No one seems to mind the close quarters. The ratio of 12 females to three males is a non-issue, they say—even with only one bathroom per gender. The young women have miraculously figured out shower schedules, and the guys don’t have to worry about competing for bathroom time.

Despite the little free time the students have during their immersion in conservation education, many of them fill the remaining hours volunteering around CRC. To take advantage of living on the Zoo’s campus, many of them help the animal keepers, such as watching monitors into the wee hours for the birth of clouded leopard cubs. With all the research at CRC, the Zoo’s lab technicians are particularly busy, and some of the students choose to get extra lab experience by volunteering. In fact, when the lab techs put out a call for people to help on the weekends, they got seven student volunteers. Their primary duty? Going at it with those rubber mallets, smashing up a variety of animal poop.

— Cindy Han is the editor of Smithsonian Zoogoer.

 

Smithsonian-Mason Student Profiles:

Ricky Hutchinson didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at CRC. A junior at Mason, he was initially a French major who studied for a semester in France. But he was losing interest in his major, happened to hear about the Smithsonian-Mason program, and was intrigued enough to give it a try. After a few weeks, he decided to switch his major to conservation biology. “The classes have really sparked my interest. Every day I learn some new fact about wildlife,” he says. “I love animals, and I like the idea of doing something that I can feel passionate about that won’t keep me in an office.”

Jimmy Munse was one of the guinea pigs in the first class to go through the Smithsonian-Mason program last year, and he calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” When program leaders asked him to return, this time as a resident advisor, he was happy to accept. He had just completed a professional internship at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, where he served as an educational presenter, handling animals like frogs and snakes. “After going through the Smithsonian-Mason program, my knowledge was way above the other educators,” he says. “And not only about keepers and vets and wildlife—I learned how to communicate about conservation biology.”

Peyton Morris can often be found snapping photos of her fellow students in action. A communications major from Austin College, Texas, she hopes to apply her skills to documenting conservation subjects through film and other media. Ironically, she wasn’t able to photograph her own favorite moment of the program thus far. During the students’ introductory tour of the National Zoo’s Bird House, a keeper brought out a North Island brown kiwi—Peyton’s favorite animal. Somehow, the bird walked straight over to Peyton and nestled itself between her ankles. She crouched protectively over it, eyes wide with delight. “That was an amazing experience,” she says.

Kendra Smith always wanted to work with endangered species. A Mason senior, her concentration is in veterinary studies, and she’s already done two internships with the National Zoo. “After my experience this semester, I’ve found I’m most interested in research, particularly related to endocrinology and reproductive biology.” Thanks to the program, she’s switching her vet school plans in order to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental science or biology.

 

More: "Bigger, Better, Greener"