The Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative


July 27th, 2012

The ZAARC project is investigating how action research efforts can be implemented in informal science settings (particularly zoos and aquariums) and in what ways it can impact both individual practitioners and institutions. ZAARC (funded by NSF, DRL-1114355) is a collaborative effort of Andee Rubin and Tracey Wright at TERC (Technical Education Research Centers, a non-profit educational R&D organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts), John Falk at Oregon State University (OSU), educators from six zoos and aquaria, and evaluator Cindy Char.

A study of one’s own practice

Action research is a practice that has been used primarily in formal settings, by teachers, to study and refine their pedagogical techniques. By definition, action research is the study of one’s own practice, guided by questions that arise from everyday events and dilemmas.  Traditionally, action research involves detailed documentation using field notes and/or video and collaborative discussion of gathered data, leading to a cycle of planning and implementing change. Although action research has rarely been carried out in zoos or aquaria, ZAARC project researchers hypothesize that zoo and aquarium educators might carry out similar practices to understand their visitors’ learning experiences in more detail.  


Participants in the ZAARC project at their first Institute at the New England Aquarium in February, 2012

Participants in the ZAARC project at their first Institute at the New England Aquarium in February, 2012


The project began with a two-day Institute designed to introduce participants to the idea of action research and to plan a first round of action research projects. In early February, teams of three educators each from the Phoenix Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Aquarium of the Pacific, Woodland Park Zoo, and the New England Aquarium met for their first formal gathering at the New England Aquarium to kick off the exploration of these ideas.

Sharing and acting-out every day events

In a gathering packed with presentations, activities, and discussions, teacher-researcher Cindy Ballenger of Tufts University presented anecdotes describing her students’ engagement with animal science at the King Open School in Cambridge, MA; researcher Ann Rosebery of TERC guided participants in a detailed analysis of a video of middle school students observing a crab brought to their classroom by the New England Aquarium; and John Falk and Julie Haun-Frank from OSU facilitated a discussion about the meaning of being a ‘reflective practitioner’ in a zoo or aquarium.

To be an Animal Scientist

Educator Bekah Stendhal of the New England Aquarium led the group in an activity originally designed for K-5 audiences — “Be an Animal Scientist (BAAS).” In this version of BAAS, participants mimic animal behaviors, alternating between “being” penguins (swimming, preening, trumpeting and resting) and being scientists observing and tracking penguin behavior. The activity culminated with data display and analysis, using colored post-its to indicate the frequency of each behavior. 


Campers at the Saint Louis Zoo practice being animal scientists by observing ray and shark behavior in the touch tank

Campers at the Saint Louis Zoo practice being animal scientists by observing ray and shark behavior in the touch tank


Participants began to hone their observation skills by moving out into the Aquarium to observe families and school groups at the ray and shark touch tank, the octopus display and the penguin exhibit. In consultation with their staff mentor, with whom they would be collaborating in their research over the next two years, participants began to plan how they would implement a Be An Animal Scientist activity at their home zoo or aquarium to engage visitors in collecting data on the behavior of live animals. As a group, ZAARC participants decided to focus their first year’s work on the idea of visitor “engagement,” working toward a definition and observation instruments that would be useful in zoos and aquaria.

This summer, each ZAARC team has been implementing “Be An Animal Scientist” with visitors — family groups, program participants or campers — using a wide range of animals including lorikeets, flamingos, sharks, rays and marine mammals. They have been doing extensive videotaping in order to start developing indicators of engagement.  They will share their findings on a project wiki and at the next group meeting, which will take place at the Aquarium of the Pacific in February 2013.  Principal Investigator Andee Rubin will discuss ZAARC in a session at ASTC in October called “We are All Learners Here: becoming a critically reflective practitioner,” with co-presenters Scott Pattison of OMSI and Sharon Tinianow of CoSi, moderated by Joe Heimlich of CoSi.

ZAARC BehaviorAnalysis

Bridget Ebert of the Saint Louis Zoo helps campers represent their data about ray and shark behaviors, using colored post-its to create a bar chart

Building on prior work

The ZAARC project builds upon the findings of the Math in Zoos and Aquariums (MiZA) project carried out jointly by TERC and the Phoenix Zoo and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The MiZA project’s primary goal was to significantly expand opportunities for visitors’ math learning in zoos and aquariums through professional development workshops for zoo and aquarium educators. These workshops, offered at 20 locations across the country from Boston to Honolulu, involved 377 participants from 124 institutions. In each workshop, MiZA leaders (one math educator and one zoo educator) introduced three activities to participants, each of which illustrated how math — in particular, data and measurement skills — could be integrated into experiences for both casual visitors and program participants. Zoo and aquarium staff who attended the workshop were expected to implement at least one of the activities in their own institutions.

Read more about the MiZA project and its evaluation in a paper entitled, Math in Zoos and Aquariums: The Evolution of a Professional Development Workshop, authored by Cecilia Garibay, Laura Martin, Andee Rubin, and Tracey Wright.

In a related paper commissioned by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) on Why Zoos Matter, read about the impact of zoos and aquariums on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors.