Science and Technology Weekend at the National Zoo
National Zoological Park
Find out why . . . . Cheetahs can run so fast!
Find out why . . . . Bees are fuzzy!
Find out why . . . . Trees need wind!
Find out why . . . . Offering an event to celebrate National Science and Technology week will bring rave
reviews from your visitors.
In April 1999, the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) celebrated National Science & Technology Week
by hosting a weekend event tailored for children and their families. The event was such a success, we
repeated it in 2000 and it will become an annual event at our zoo.
Annually, since 1985, National Science & Technology Week has highlighted the outreach activities of the
National Science Foundation. With the support of numerous corporate sponsors and NSF, the event has
been celebrated in schools, science museums and technology centers, youth groups and numerous other
community organizations throughout the United States. The theme of the 1999 event was “Find Out
Why,” which made it a natural for zoos to participate. We were contacted by NSF and, after agreeing to
organize an event, we applied for a grant to help defray expenses. We were pleased to receive $2,500
Planning for our event began with a brainstorming session during which about 20 volunteers and staff
members from the FONZ education department discussed possible topics to “find out why.” It was great
fun to see how many different approaches each of us took to present the question. We discovered quickly
that we all have trouble keeping it simple when it comes to opportunities to educate. These slides will
illustrate some of the topics we selected:
Find out why. . . . .
GLTs carry their babies on their backs
Lizards have tails
Bees are fuzzy
Orangutans don’t fall off the Oline
Rhinos have a great sense of smell
A gorilla can pick up a grape
Trees need wind
Some backyards are bird-friendly
Each topic was adopted by a volunteer who then spent several hours over a period of a few weeks
developing an activity to help youngsters explore the question and come up with the correct answer. Each
volunteer submitted a proposal to the FONZ education department for review. FONZ staff members
made a few modifications and the proposals were then approved. The next step was for each volunteer to
purchase or make the props that would be required in the activity. Volunteers were reimbursed for any
Throughout the development process, a partner in the FONZ education department assisted each
volunteer. These partnerships were very helpful for both moral support and the procurement of items that
would be needed on the day of the event, like tables, chairs, tablecloths, artifacts, etc. Each FONZ team
member also assisted in the recruitment of additional volunteers to staff the event, prepared schedules for
volunteer shifts, and even assisted with the construction of some of the props we used.
Two weeks prior to the event, a training session was held for the volunteers who would be staffing the
discovery stations. The volunteers who developed each activity conducted the training sessions assisted
by their partners from the FONZ staff.
The first day of the event arrived! Visitors were welcomed by volunteers at the starting point where they
picked up a game board in the form of a question mark. The volunteers explained the game: After
completing an activity, the children would be rewarded with a sticker for their game board depicting the
animal they learned about.
Now, we would like to present a demonstration of how two of our activities worked.
Find out why . . . .
Birds have different beaks
Props: Pictures of birds on plastic stands (anhinga, wood duck, parrot)
“Bird food” placed in front of each picture as follows:
• Anhinga: marshmallow and gummy bear “bugs” and “worms”
• Wood duck: “pond” with oatmeal floating on the water
• Parrot: peanuts
• Three tools (these are not placed in front of the appropriate bird):
G Sieve for dipping and straining out the oatmeal
G Bamboo skewer for spearing marshmallows/gummy bears
G Pliers or nutcracker for cracking peanuts
Guidelines for demonstrations:
As a child/adult approaches, greet them and ask: “Why do birds have beaks? Are all bird beaks
alike?” After asking and/or answering questions, ask the visitor to select one of the tools and tell
which beak the tool most resembles. If necessary, give hints and do a little coaching. When the
tools and beak are matched up correctly, ask the visitor to use the tool to perform whatever the
task is, i.e., crack a nut, spear a marshmallow or dip into the water and strain some oatmeal.
Explain that this is how that particular bird uses it beak whenever it hunts for food.
Precaution: Probe for allergies to peanuts.
Find out why . . . .
Cheetahs can run so fast
Props: Felt board large enough for two assembled cheetah figures
• Easel to hold the felt board upright
• Laminated cheetah and non-cheetah body parts
• Continuous video of cheetahs chasing prey
Guidelines for demonstrations:
As the child/adult approaches, ask the question “Do you know why cheetahs can run so fast? Do
you know what cheetahs eat?” During the discussion, explain that the cheetah’s primary food,
gazelles, can run at speeds of 50 miles per hour. How else can cheetahs get a meal but to chase
down a gazelle?
Assist the visitor in examining the various laminated body parts and discuss which parts will best
help the cheetah run fast and why. The choices are:
Long vs. short legs
Slender vs. stocky body
Flexible vs. rigid backbone
Large vs. small heart and lungs
Long vs. short tail
After the visitor successfully builds the cheetah figure, call attention to the video of a cheetah in
pursuit and suggest that the family learn more about cheetahs by visiting the animals on exhibit.
While our event the first year was very successful, we learned some valuable lessons that made this year’s
event much better. For example:
The first year, we limited the event to a period of four hours, 10 A.M–2 P.M. The enthusiastic reception
resulted in our extending the hours. This year, the event ran from 10–4 on Saturday and 11–4 on Sunday
and visitors were still clamoring to participate as we were dismantling the stations.
Our original bird question was “Find out why flamingos have curved beaks.” We used a large bowl of
water with sand at the bottom and some simulated algae, insects and crustaceans. We asked the children
to pretend their hand was a flamingo’s beak and they were to try to retrieve some food from the water in
the same way a flamingo used its beak. Unfortunately, the water was very cold and, by the end of the
day, somewhat cloudy. The activity was also cumbersome, messy and resulted in long lines.
The fuzzy bee question worked pretty well the first year, but we had a little trouble with the Velcro tabs
staying on the ping-pong balls, so we reinforced the connection this year.
We also discovered we must remain flexible and use different techniques for probing when the child can’t
think of the answer or wants to be clever and try to prove you wrong.
A valuable addition to this year’s event was laminated world maps placed in each discovery station so we
could mark the habitat where each of our study animals currently lives. The parents really enjoyed
pointing out the animal habitat in relation to where they live. We also placed world globes on each of the
demonstration tables. At the close of each activity, volunteers at the discovery stations encouraged the
families to visit the zoo exhibits to observe the animals in real life. Our volunteers on duty at the exhibits
were coached to continue the educational experience by pointing out animals featured in the activities.
To close, we will show you a short video that was made as a marketing tool to demonstrate how a zoo
uses a family event as an educational tool.