“My favourite animal is the Madagascan Hissing Cockroach, partly because they need friends, and partly because they represent what we are about. A lot of people don’t like it but it is a recycler and it is right at the core of all the life on the planet.
“If I went round Edinburgh city centre with a bucket saying ‘save the cockroach’, I would either be arrested or be treated as a fringe event. If I go around saying ‘save the lemur’ or ‘save the tiger’, loads of people would put money in the bucket, but actually, it is saving the cockroach that is more important because they are one of the sustainers of the habitat – rather than an ambassador, like the tiger. So we need to find ways to get support for them, to inspire and excite, so that kids know that it is not just pandas and tigers.”
Steven Woolard is a man dedicated to spreading his love of nature and as head of discovery and learning at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), enthusiasm for conservation may be expected. But RZSS’s work with schools is about more than making kids aware of the importance of conservation. Woolard and his team use the zoo as a platform for critical thinking, working across Scotland to use the excitement brought by animals to meet the aims of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
About 20,000 children annually make educational visits to Edinburgh Zoo, with another 5,000 visiting Highland Wildlife Park.
“We vary the sessions but for an upper primary to lower secondary – say P5 to S2 then what we would do is a little bit about why animals are endangered, so what are the threats that face animals in the wild and get the children to actually voice that. Then we would look at some case studies, so we would show them some examples in the zoo from the species that we have got and what is threatening them. Then we would ask what we can do about it – what ideas have you got for protecting this animal.
“Quite often that will lead to an activity where they go round and do tasks where they have been posed a problem and they need to find a solution. So one problem they might get is chimpanzees in the wild facing that from snares which people set up to catch other animals. The chimpanzee can get caught in the snare and they can lose hands and feet. That is a major problem so we ask them – what can we do about that? We get the kids to come up with ideas – is it best to go in and deal with the people who set the snares? Is it finding the snares and collecting them all up? So generally what will then happen is that you get the immediate reaction of removing all the snares. So then we say, ‘OK you got rid of them, but why did the snares appear there in the first place? Because people were hunting – they need food – so maybe if we looked at what the people need then we can stop them setting the snares in the first place’. So it is about getting a more complicated picture – that conservation is actually about people, and that is something we try to get across in most of our programmes.”
Clearly, the educational work is more about teaching the kids to think critically than aiming to teach biology.
“Another one of our programmes – which is the most popular lesson we do for primary six pupils, is called cycle of life – our sex education programme. It was developed many years ago with Renfrewshire Council and then later we got City of Edinburgh and they helped too. So it is a session where kids are introduced to all the right language relating to sex but using animals as the examples, so we are able to talk through the whole concept of breeding and what the zoo is doing in terms of conservation breeding. That is incredibly popular as a way of introducing the kids to the right language so that they can then talk about that in relation to human reproduction.”
Woolard says that the introduction of CfE did not demand huge changes to his work because although RZSS has a set of content on conservation, the environment and wildlife, the delivery is all about getting the children to ask questions and investigate.
“I think the main thing that has probably changed is that we do a lot more work with teachers than we used to. We have worked with the Scottish Scientist Research Centre, SSRC, doing CPD for teachers. So we do workshops with teachers that are struggling or have less confidence in teaching science. It gives them a bit more confidence in covering those topics and CfE has actually enabled us to say to teachers, you don’t need to know all the answers – go and find them out with the children. So their role is to facilitate the children in investigating rather than having to know everything there is to know on a particular topic. There are experts all over the place for different aspects of the curriculum so obviously we are experts on life science but there are people at the museum who are experts on history and people elsewhere who are experts on geography. It is about using their expertise.”
Even with an animal like the panda, which could probably get children excited without Woolard and his team even trying, the aim goes beyond just telling kids about its habits and habitat.
“The pandas have helped enormously in terms of getting people interested in Edinburgh Zoo and the work of the society and of course it has brought a lot more visitors to the zoo. Schools-wise, there is a lot of interest but what we have decided to do is focus on China. We have treated the panda as the ambassador and China as the topic, so we have linked up with the Scottish Centre for Languages to do outreach into schools. We do topics on the pandas and the wildlife in China and then have a follow up on Mandarin and the country’s culture. So that links heavily into the fact that China is the growth market for a lot of industries now and that Scotland has close ties with it, so we want to make the children more aware of the importance of China in their life and of its amazing wildlife. Ten per cent of the world’s biodiversity is found in China – ten per cent of the variety of life on earth – so that is why it is critically important to use the panda to open people’s eyes and make them realise that it is about more than just that animal.”
The society will soon branch out, taking a bus to take reach 130 schools.
“Our mission is to get people engaged with nature and that begins at home. So our overriding thing in terms of education is to get kids to appreciate how wonderful the environment they live in is, and what a shame it would be if we lost that. There is also a bit of a concern that with modern technology, kids are spending less time outdoors and maybe they are not engaging with outdoor play as much as they did a generation ago. In Scotland I am not too sure that is true across the board – there are amazing outdoor places where a lot of kids have access but if you go to inner-city Glasgow, Edinburgh or Dundee, there will be kids who don’t get the chance to go out and run around a tree and do that sort of stuff. So we are quite focused on finding ways to get that back into the cities.
“Think of David Attenborough – what he has done for most of his career is expose people to the wonder of nature, through some amazing TV programmes. Rarely does he go into the conservation side of things but when he does, people really listen because he has made us interested and excited, so he can make us concerned. I think that is one of the conundrums in getting outdoor education to link into a curriculum – content is probably the least important thing because it is readily accessible in lots of different forms, you can read books, you can go onto the internet, you can find the information and you could easily spiel off a load of facts about all the animals in the zoo. But what we really want is emotional learning, we want people to care about something because they like it, or even if they don’t like it, they understand it has a place in the world and that makes it important.”