Topics: Immersive Learning, College of Sciences and Humanities

April 29, 2008

Andrea Speraw always dreamed of working with exotic animals.

 As a result of a semester-long project at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, the 21-year-old Ball State University student will get that chance.

Speraw's first immersive learning experience allowed the Indianapolis resident to shadow a zookeeper. Now Speraw, who's majoring in biology, can't wait for classes to end. In a few weeks, she'll begin a summer internship at the zoo's Indonesian Rainforest exhibit.

"I plan on working full time at a zoo after graduation, and our experiences provided me with valuable information on what it takes to run a zoo and what life is like for a full-time zookeeper," she said.

Speraw is part of an 11-member interdisciplinary team of Ball State students who spent the last few months completing projects designed to provide visitors of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo with detailed information about how the facility takes good care of its many residents.

Rare for the Midwest

Under the direction of Ball State biology professor Gary Dodson, students were given access to zookeepers as part of a project to videotape rarely seen interactions with their animals.

The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, which opened in 1952, is considered to be one of northeast Indiana's major attractions. The facility was recently named one of the country's "Ten Best Zoos for Kids" by Child magazine.

The partnership between the zoo and Ball State was established by Dodson to open doors for potential zoologists.

"Every year new freshmen walk into their first biology class here at Ball State and tell us they want to work with animals at a zoo some day," Dodson said. "Since we know that our students are not unusual in this regard, one would think that colleges and universities would be creating programs to meet the needs of these students.

"But such programs are startlingly rare and are mainly located at schools on the east and west coasts that have affiliations with local zoos," he said. "Luckily for our students, Fort Wayne is only a short drive away, and the zoo officials were eager to work with us. Our students received real zoo experiences that will potentially open doors to internships and other opportunities, providing them an edge when they enter the job market."

Educating visitors

Cheryl Piropato, the zoo's education director, said the videos will be used in the zoo's public galleries to showcase its never-ending care of the animals.

One of the videos will showcase the behavioral training that takes place with the orangutans to gain the animals' cooperation in their own preventive health care. The other video documents the procedures required to meet the nutritional requirements of the zoo's jellyfish population.

The third project is to design methods to analyze visitors' abilities at navigating within the zoo grounds. 

"We are always proud to explain the exceptional care that our animals receive, and Ball State's students have helped us meet that goal," Piropato said. "It has been a pleasure working with the students as well as the faculty and staff. The students have tremendous enthusiasm for their work and have brought an interesting perspective to their projects.

"I have truly benefited from their insights. I've been impressed with their professional approach to the projects they are developing."

After the students provide the zoo with finished videos, Ball State biology faculty and students will act as consultants for future improvements to signs and/or other modes of disseminating information to help visitors get where they want to go efficiently, Dodson said.