Zoo Watch: Question time with Whipsnade’s education team

PUBLISHED: 08:38 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 08:38 05 December 2016

Discovery and learning officer Sam Viner teaches students in the Butterfly House.

Discovery and learning officer Sam Viner teaches students in the Butterfly House.


Discovery and learning officer Sam Viner shares her experiences as part of the education team at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

Sam Viner leads an education session at Whipsnade.Sam Viner leads an education session at Whipsnade.

“Are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes?”, “Is it true giraffes can lick the moon with their really long tongues?” and “Why do mammals have breasticles?”

The pure intrigue of children in animals and the natural world certainly cues some inquisitive thinking and unusual questions.

But, as part of the education team at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo that is part of my job, to inspire curiosity and fascination towards nature – the more bizarre questions I get the better!

Each year, the Discovery and Learning team at Whipsnade can lead as many as 560 education sessions for 15,000 students, aged from five to 18.

Sam runs a digital outreach session live from Whipsnade via Skype.Sam runs a digital outreach session live from Whipsnade via Skype.

As part of a school visit to the Zoo, the pupils start by taking part in an education session during which they interact with objects from the natural world like a Galapagos tortoise’s shell, an enormous tooth from an elephant and the skull of a tiger.

Inevitably, a common question is ‘where do we get all these things from?’ and this provides a nice opportunity to introduce subjects such as poaching and wildlife trade, as our animal artefacts are all donated by H&M Customs having been seized at Heathrow airport.

Among the other topics we cover – in line with the national curriculum or exam board syllabi for Key Stages one to five – are habitats, animal biology, evolution, zoo ethics, conservation and animal behaviour.

The sessions typically conclude with us introducing the class to one of the Zoo’s animals, with stunning snakes like our royal python, Ebenezer, often the most popular part of the day. For most, it is their first experience of handling a snake and the general reaction is one of amazement as they realise their skin is not slimy, but smooth.

I really love the sessions with the younger children – seeing their faces light up when they see or touch an animal for the first time or learn an amazing animal fact is incredibly rewarding – though I would probably say I enjoy teaching the older students most.

This is mainly because there is more opportunity for open group discussions about some of the more serious topics we cover, for example climate change and the role of zoos in conservation, and for such complex subjects I think it is important to engage everyone’s opinions.

In addition to our zoo sessions, we also run digital outreach sessions where I can link in to a classroom anywhere in the world via Skype from places like the penguin exhibit or giraffe platform. These are extremely popular and, as well as schools in the UK, we have been able to engage with classes in Portugal, Qatar, Australia and the US.

Yet, whether I am teaching a class of five-year-olds via webcam or a group of college students at the Zoo, ultimately I want the pupils to enjoy themselves and leave feeling inspired and impassioned about the natural world. And, if just one student leaves one of my sessions wanting to become the next Sir David Attenborough or Jane Goodall then I will feel extremely proud.

To find out more about ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s education sessions click here.

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