By: Jaime Stigall, USM
University of Southern Mississippi students are getting a unique opportunity to put their teaching to the test and learn about science in its many forms this fall.
Through a partnership with Hattiesburg Zoo, Dr. Maria Wallace’s science education students have been serving as zoo docents throughout the semester, interacting and educating guests on the importance of wildlife conservation.
The students attend the zoo regularly to staff the educational exhibits that are placed around the zoo during visiting hours, with each exhibit containing different information regarding the environment and the various animals commonly seen at the zoo. When zoo visitors stop by the tables, the USM students share information about the exhibits, which allows them to draw on their scientific knowledge and gain experience educating and interacting with youth of all different ages and learning abilities. As part of their coursework, students also develop a standards-based lesson plan aligning with the experiences offered through the docent program.
This service-learning opportunity is one with mutual benefits for USM students and the Hattiesburg Zoo. The students have gained valuable hands-on experience to prepare them for their future careers, and the Zoo has an increased number of volunteers to spread awareness about wildlife conservation.
Emma Atwood and Natalie Hudson, students in Dr. Wallace’s class, say the experience has taught them about communicating with people of varying ages and diverse backgrounds. Hudson adds that she’s grateful to “not only learn with different age groups, but also be able to learn how to teach outside of a classroom too.”
Gabby Howe, Education Programs Coordinator for Hattiesburg Zoo, sees great potential for the Zoo’s collaboration with Dr. Wallace and her students.
“(This collaboration) conveys one of our upmost educational values, which is to further the public’s appreciation, respect, and knowledge of nature and the importance of wildlife conservation,” said Howe. “The docents not only aid Hattiesburg Zoo in our mission but also play a significant role in advocating for the conservation of wildlife species.”
Wallace’s class is offered in the Center for Science & Mathematics Education in USM’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“One of the greatest challenges we face is to inspire more students to seek career opportunities in scientific fields,” said Chris Winstead, dean of the USM College of Arts and Sciences. “This collaborative effort with the Hattiesburg Zoo is an excellent opportunity for our future professional science educators to grow their experience and abilities by sharing their scientific interests with people from a variety of backgrounds and ages. We are excited to be in this partnership with the Hattiesburg Zoo.”
The course is one of many service-learning courses offered at the University of Southern Mississippi. A list of service-learning courses offered at USM can be viewed on the Center for Community Engagement’s website at usm.edu/cce.