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A Zoological Education

Red panda in a zoo

Thinking of taking the children to the zoo? You may come home with the next Sir David Attenborough or Jane Goodall. Research by Dr Eric Jensen, from the Department of Sociology, has shown that a day out at the zoo is more than fun. It can help to boost children's science and conservation education.

Anyone who has taken children to a good zoo or aquarium will know it sparks excitement and wonder. But research from the University of Warwick has shown a trip to the zoo can do more than create lovely memories - it can actually boost your child’s science and conservation education beyond the effects of classroom teaching alone.

Dr Eric Jensen from Warwick's Department of Sociology has conducted multiple studies of children and families visiting zoos and has demonstrated measurable impact on their knowledge and attitudes, both in the short term and one year after their visit.

Dr Jensen explains: "In research conducted at ZSL London Zoo, more than 3,000 school children aged between seven and 14 were asked about their knowledge of animals, habitat and conservation and then tested again after their trip.

"The results show that 53% had a positive change in conservation-related knowledge areas, personal concern for endangered species or new empowerment to participate in conservation efforts. The study shows that their trip around the zoo provided a statistically significant increase in scientific learning about animals and habitats. When zoo visits were supplemented by an educational presentation by zoo staff this increase in learning almost doubled when compared against self-guided visits."

Zoo knows

Dr Jensen's study showed children came away with a greater understanding of ideas such as conservation, habitat and extinction. Amongst those who had not previously registered a concern about species extinction, 39% switched to registering such a concern when surveyed directly after a zoo trip.

The children were asked to draw their favourite animals and habitats before and after their trip to the zoo. The drawings were analysed and showed some remarkable improvements. Some 51% of ten-year-olds showed a real change in the drawings and the use of correct scientific terms such as ‘canopy’ and ‘rainforest’ and had a higher amount of animals placed in the correct habitat, e.g. a meerkat drawn in the desert.

Scientific learning example - desert habitat

Dr Jensen followed up this research with a global study in over 30 zoos and aquariums, measuring the long-term effects of visiting a zoo or aquarium on understanding of biodiversity and conservation actions. This study focused on evaluating the contribution of zoo and aquarium visits towards the UN biodiversity target, that by 2020, people would understand the value of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve it

He explains: "We surveyed families visiting the zoo on the day of their visit and then again after two years. We found that they had retained or even improved on their biodoversity-related knowledge. This was a surprising and promising finding which suggests that the immediate positive effects of a zoo or aquarium visit may be long lasting and even help lay the groundwork for further learning."

Positive pattern

Dr Jensen continues: “Globally, millions of families pass through zoos each year, so there is great potential for large-scale impact given they have such a huge audience.

“In recent years zoos have come under criticism for failing to demonstrate educational impact. But the evidence is now clear: Good zoos have the potential to deliver effective conservation-related learning outcomes for families and schoolchildren. This positive impact pattern has now been shown in impact studies conducted all over the world.

“The research clearly shows the valuable role that zoos can play in children’s science learning. So when you are planning your spring holidays, why not swap the theme park for a good zoo? Your kids and their favourite animals may thank you in years to come!”

Read the research in full:

16 February 2018

Eric JensenDr Eric Jensen specialises in researching science engagement and communication. Holding a PhD from Cambridge University, he has published dozens of studies around the world on the impacts of informal learning and public communication in university outreach, museums, science festivals, math festivals, social science and humanities festivals, community education, zoos, aquariums and heritage sites. His studies have been published in leading scientific journals such as Nature, Conservation Biology, Conservation Letters and PLOS ONE, as well as social science journals such as Public Understanding of Science. His most recently published book is Doing Real Research: A Practical Guide to Social Research.

Red Panda Tambako (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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