Allison Price, with contributions from Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Conservation Education Committee, asks: How can we mobilize a national network for improved conservation education?

Imagine you have a network of educators distributed at more than 225 zoos and aquariums throughout North America. It’s a pretty diligent group that serves more than 400,000 teachers and reaches 15 million kids through field trips alone. Although everyone is generally doing the same thing – educating the public about animals and conservation – how do you know who is doing it well? More importantly, how do you determine what “doing it well” means? And even more complicated, how can you mobilize that network so that it becomes a true community of resource sharing and collective growth?

These are the questions we address on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ [AZA] Conservation Education Committee [CEC]. The mission of AZA is to provide its members with the services, high standards and best practices needed to be leaders and innovators in animal care, wildlife conservation and science, conservation education, the guest experience, and community engagement. AZA envisions a world where, as a result of the work of accredited zoos and aquariums, all people respect, value and conserve wildlife and wild places.

To help AZA achieve that vision, the CEC was established in 1997 (although an education committee has existed in various capacities since the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums formed in 1924; the AAZPA later became AZA). The CEC is charged with assisting the staff and membership of the AZA in educating and engaging public, professional and government audiences. The committee is made up of informal science education professionals from accredited zoos and aquariums throughout North America who serve multi-year terms by appointment of the AZA Board chair. Our mission is threefold:

1. Strengthen and promote conservation education programs for the public

2. Provide leadership and professional development opportunities for AZA educators

3. Disseminate pertinent information to the education liaisons at AZA institutions throughout North America through its regional communication plan, quarterly newsletter and yearly calendar

It’s easy to assume that in a volunteer committee of more than 20 professionals spread across a continent – who hold leadership positions at various institutions – there would be a lot of talk and no action. Then again, anyone who knows environmental educators know we’re not the type to rest on our laurels! In 2015, the CEC is actively working on two strategic themes with 9 individual initiatives that support them.
Our first theme is to contribute to the creation of impactful and effective conservation education programs. One initiative under this category involves promoting visitor research to increase our understanding of zoo and aquarium audiences and facilitate creation of education programs that shift public behaviours for conservation outcomes. Within this initiative, the CEC is working on a national visitor studies effort based on AZA’s “Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research.” Our goal is to have all the accredited zoos in North America aligned on one visitor studies framework so that we can better assess the collective impact our institutions are making on public conservation attitudes and behaviours. We just finished pilot testing a tool that allows member institutions to easily share the relevant parts of theses, dissertations, and peer-reviewed articles generated at their institution. The plan is to begin gathering information about these various studies being conducted this spring. The hope is that we can share our good work and resources by housing it in a centralized location that can be accessed by all our members.

Our second theme is to identify and share best practices in conservation education. Collectively, AZA member zoos and aquariums attract more than 181 million visitors each year, and so offering the most robust science and nature programming possible is of paramount importance. We pursue a variety of avenues within this theme, from advocacy work within legislative channels to developing and disseminating tools that support classroom-based learning. A relatively new focus for us in the area of best practices education is on connecting families to nature, and by extension, Nature Play. While many zoos, and aquariums to a lesser extent, have embraced programs and exhibits that encourage free play in nature, we want to provide the community tools and tips on the whys and hows of this critical educational approach. In the last few years, with support from the CEC, professional development opportunities, grants, and a robust number of resources about nature play have been made available to zoo and aquarium educators Association-wide. For more information, click here.

Looking to the future, we’re excited about other action items on our plate, including the development of a set of best practices to educationally support in situ conservation projects, and establishing a network of resources that will help zoo and aquarium professionals support classroom-based learning. We welcome any collaboration from NAEE members, and are always happy to share what we’ve learned in these endeavours so far.

More information is available from CEC Chair, Danielle Ross, Vice President of Conservation Education, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Wilds:


This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 108).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.



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