September 23, 2019

Not Just a Drop in the Bucket

Denver Zoo Outreach Programs Help Youth Realize What They Can Do to Effect Change in their Communities

By Kara Polansky, Outreach Programs Coordinator 


Every day, Denver Zoo sends a team of educators out around Colorado as part of our Outreach programming. These programs bring the Zoo to classrooms and assemblies, connecting students with wildlife. Most of our Zoo to You programs happen over the course of a few hours, but sometimes we have the opportunity to work with students for a few days, and hopefully get those students interested in topics like conservation and animal care.  

Water, Water Everywhere 

When I went to New America School this summer, I had just five days to get a group of students interested in water sustainability. I had a lesson plan, which I developed with the help of Denver Water and New America School, but I had no idea what to expect. 

Monday got off to a slow start, with students seeming uninterested in both the animals I brought, and my water-based lesson. I came back on Tuesday with high hopes and a little back up. I brought out Casper the barn owl and was shocked by the reaction from students. The whole class was in awe of Casper’s beauty, and had so many questions, I had to save some for later so we could take a walk around the community to talk about all things water. 

I wasn’t sure how we would find enough water-related areas to keep the students engaged; the whole area was paved over for roads or parking lots. But Denver Water Educators helped reveal the secrets of the pipes below the streets—and how to tell for ourselves what is below our feet. We passed an auto shop and observed oil run-off. We saw drainage areas and noted how the well-maintained area by the new apartments differed from the forgotten gulch in the back corner of their school’s parking lot. This forgotten gulch was polluted with trash and dog poop, but it was also a potential oasis. Nearby, a few students spotted a red tail hawk leaving its nest. I was impressed that they made the connection that the hawk would likely obtain its food from this polluted area, just as we had discussed for Casper earlier in the day.  

Back in the classroom, the students started brainstorming ways they could help improve the water issues in the area. Picking up trash would be a good first step, but how could they make a long-term impact on the area? Their ideas were bold but would be tough to execute on a small budget and limited time. While the students were discouraged by these limitations, they were learning a valuable lesson. This is the reality that all conservationists face—bureaucracy and budgets.  

Turning the Tide 

One student, Rene, emerged as a leader in the class, heading up a group who met with owners of the property containing the problematic gulch. The owners were impressed with the students’ initiative, maturity and interest in helping the environment. 

Over the next three days, students cleared more than 15 bags full of trash from the gulch. One group of students created passive in-ground filters to help clean the water that ran down the slope. They researched which plants would be the best fit for that space and planted marigolds, lavender, and rosemary. Another group designed a filtration box inspired by the model they had seen from Denver Water containing gravel, soil and plants. Water runoff passes through the grate on the sides of the box, which also collects trash, and is “filtered” before it reaches the other side. I couldn’t believe the kids that barely said two words on my first day were now chatting with me about their new conservation career goals. 

On Friday, as I packed up the Zoo to You van one last time, the sky opened, and we had a typical summer afternoon downpour. I drove down to the gulch and watched as the filtration systems went to work. I also took a moment to observe the students who were up the hill, standing on the stairs in the rain. They didn’t seem to mind the summer storm, they were much more focused on monitoring newly planted rosemary garden, making sure it was ok in the rain. 

If you’re interested in having Denver Zoo’s Outreach program at your school, click here. 



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