Bringing animals into the classroom

A little over a year ago, teachers at Bayside Elementary School in Virginia Beach contacted NC Zoo Society Conservation Education Officer Mark MacAllister requesting an in-person program about the red wolves at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Rather than driving to Virginia, MacAllister suggested a “live” video conferencing session – bringing this educational program directly into the classroom via modern technology. Since that time, more than 65 programs have been broadcast to schools in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, Florida and New York. Schools in Canada, Africa and England have also requested programs.

Mark MacAllister created the NC Zoo Society’s award-winning interactive website FieldTripEarth ( in 2003 as a way to bring the exciting world of animal research and field conservation into homes and classrooms around the world. Adding the videoconferencing program has brought increased value to FieldTripEarth by allowing students to learn more about wildlife conservation while talking directly to people working in wildlife conservation.

Part of the program’s popularity is due to the fact that it uses Skype videoconferencing software. Skype is free to educators, simple to use and easily found in schools around the world. This program would not be as successful if it required expensive software or hardware, or if it required complicated technical equipment.

A variety of wildlife-themed programs are available. Some feature hard-to-transport live animals and allow educators to teach about adaptations and animal anatomy while demonstrating those features on the animals themselves. Screech owls, box turtles and ball pythons are some of the animals commonly highlighted. Other presentations focus on red wolf recovery, African elephant research, exhibit design, and the high-tech tools used in conservation research.

Sunny Eccleston's first grade students at Kimberlin Academy in Garland, Texas invited MacAllister into their classroom via Skype as an enhancement to their “Fins and Fur” science unit.

“Mark was absolutely fabulous with my kids! He was engaging, patient and spoke on a level my first graders could understand. He brought learning to our class in a way that I would never have been able to provide my students on my own. His expertise in his field enabled my students to gain a deeper understanding of wild animals and the way people study and research them. My kids absolutely loved Mark's presentation and now ask when we can do something like that again.” The height of excitement was when he explained how scientists study “scat,” more commonly known as “poop.” The kids loved getting to view both black bear and red wolf scat. That is not something you get to do everyday in the classroom!

The program also facilitates contact between schools and other wildlife experts. For example, it has connected classrooms with field researchers working with dolphins, sea turtles, caribou, polar bears and red wolves. This facilitation is invaluable to students and researchers alike.

“What amazes me most is that students are completely unfazed by the fact that the educator is not is the classroom with them,” shares MacAllister. “They ask questions, give answers and act just like they would with a ‘live’ teacher. Kids that have grown up with computers can really benefit from the opportunity to talk to wildlife experts that wouldn’t be able to visit with them in any other way.” A future program goal is to involve educators at other US zoos and aquariums so as to increase the number of schools reached by conservation educators.

Heather Schweitzer, Gifted Resource Teacher at Bayside Elementary School, credits MacAllister with offering a huge benefit to their elementary school. “We have enlisted Mark’s help with various grade levels, providing them with multiple experiences from the perspective of an ‘expert.’ He has provided authentic feedback to our first graders as they tried to solve a problem about an escaped elephant, as well as presented a problem-based learning experience dealing with red wolves to our third graders. Students were able to conduct research, work on the computer program googledocs, and present their research live to Mr. MacAllister.”

“Working with Mark allowed our second and third graders participate in an international polar bear conference in Manitoba. Additionally, through his contacts, our students have been able to speak to a specialist from the Lincoln Park Zoo, educators at a waterfowl park in North Carolina and a representative from the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research. Mr. MacAllister has also ‘connected’ us with a senior facility in Connecticut. Because of this, our kindergarten students have connected with another generation of people who enjoy reading.”