February 1, 2024

USM, Hattiesburg Zoo Sign Research-Focused Partnership

Special to Darkhorse Press

Unlocking opportunities – a profound theme resonating from an innovative research-focused partnership between The University of Southern Mississippi and the Hattiesburg Zoo.

On Wednesday, Jan. 31, both parties signed an official Memorandum of Understanding to establish and support a robust research-practice partnership. The MOU formalizes a three-year collaboration between NExUS2 (Nurturing Educators’ complex Understanding Science and Society), a research group led by USM Science Education Assistant Professor Dr. Maria Wallace, and the zoo.

“The MOU is an effort to make a very public commitment to each other, the region, and even international research communities of science education that Mississippi communities have always been a place of ingenuity and innovation,” said Wallace. “This partnership further reveals the capacity of everyday experiences to fuel transformative community-engaged science education and research experiences.”

Jeremy Cumpton, Director of Conservation, Education, and Wildlife at the Hattiesburg Zoo, says the partnership helps fortify the zoo’s mission to expand the public’s appreciation, respect, and knowledge of nature.

“By partnering with USM, we are able to further our mission by having more educators for the public to interact with, while also emphasizing the importance of environmental education to future teachers,” said Cumpton.

Added Kaitylyn Buckley, Volunteer Coordinator, Education Team at the zoo: “This is such a unique and cutting-edge collaboration to be a part of, and we are just so excited to be on board.”

The overarching purpose of the partnership is to develop innovative applied research experiences, curriculum innovations, and advance research that directly benefits the Hattiesburg community. This partnership leverages best practices in science education research to make data-driven decisions about how best to support community-engaged science education initiatives within and beyond the USM community.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Hattiesburg Zoo include:

  • Have at least one representative attend Hattiesburg Zoo, RPP meetings and provide input during or after these meetings.
  • Review any proposed research or education plans, recruitment, and progress and make suggestions based on expertise.
  • Serve as active stakeholders, provide resources and knowledge, as well as connections to other partners.
  • Provide opinion on projects tactics, direction and next steps, including interpretation of findings.

Roles and Responsibilities of USM Investigators and Research Staff:

  • Provide data, goals, and objectives of the project.
  • Help to plan, join, and take and share notes from regular Hattiesburg Zoo, RPP meetings.
  • Maintain communication with participants and partners.
  • Share findings with internal and external community members (e.g., USM News, media, peer-reviewed publications, workshops, etc.

Wallace emphasizes that the partnership’s benefits are vast and constantly evolving. One important example – the collaboration advances Mississippi’s postsecondary science education, while strengthening the state’s K-12 pre-service teacher recruitment and education.

“Connecting the zoo’s education team with other University faculty and graduate students from different disciplines has been exciting,” said Wallace. “We have been able to support STEM faculty engaged in diverse pedagogical innovation, community-engagement, collaborative grant and research proposal developments, and publication development.”

Recently, Wallace’s research team collaborated closely with Dr. Kaitlin Baudier, Assistant Professor in USM’s School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences, and her undergraduate biology class to offer unique extra credit opportunities for students who served as educational docents at the zoo.

“I think it’s really hard in these high-capacity classes to offer the same kinds of experiences we can in the senior level courses,” said Baudier. “However, getting students engaged early on in their programs, before they choose specialized, upper-level courses is important because this is when students are pivoting in their majors and emphases. This is when they’re trying to decide what they want to do, and it helps them pick courses further along. To have a whole team of people who are all working together to make this one really important component work well has been such a treat.”

Dr. Kelly Lucas notes that in her role as Vice President for Research at USM forming partnerships with city entities is crucial.

“These collaborations help us combine academic and local strengths to positively impact our community,” said Lucas. “By working together, we enhance research, improve education, and address real-world challenges benefitting both the University and the city. These partnerships are a win-win, creating dynamic exchanges of knowledge and resources for the betterment of everyone involved.”

With more than 225,000 guests visiting each year, Cumpton says the new partnership with USM will enable the zoo to reach many more people directly with conservation messaging.

“Working with The University of Southern Mississippi has been a tremendous step forward for the Hattiesburg Zoo,” said Cumpton. “This partnership unlocks many new opportunities for both organizations, and I cannot wait to see what the future brings.”

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