I learned a tidbit recently about what to takes to be an effective zoo and aquarium educator, and I think it comes down to this:
Sometimes, you just have to BE the penguin.
Before you think I’m mixing Eastern and elementary (school) philosophy and need to double-check my sources, I want to tell you a story about one of the most illuminating glimpses into engagement I could have ever observed. It came in the form of nearly 30 zoo and aquarium educators recording observation data and taking turns preening, bowing, and “swimming” penguin-style across the jellyfish floor of the New England Aquarium.
I shook my plumage dry with the best of them, and eagerly recorded the emphatic behavior of my chosen ‘penguin’. It didn’t occur to me until after I had placed my colored Post-Its on the wall to count his waddles, preens, and singular high-pitched bray that the “Be An Animal Scientist” activity was a scientific data collection and analysis activity designed by aquarium educators to engage…K-2nd grade aquarium visitors. Still, there we all were—a flock of mature mock-penguins and thorough scientists—completely lost in our enactments.
It all came together when I considered the nature of this exuberant end to the first day of the ZAARC (Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative) Institute. The Institute was an introductory meeting designed to initiate discussions, presentations and modeling of effective action research* practices to determine how and if zoo and aquarium educators could engage in reflective inquiry and examinations of ‘visitor engagement’ at their own institutions.
And then I realized the question really came down to the how, not the if.
Perhaps measuring engagement through action research can be even MORE preemptive than pilot testing designs with visitors. Perhaps it really is about just buckling down, being that proverbial penguin, and testing your activities yourself. If you end up flapping your flippers wildly and trumpeting with aplomb, you just know you have developed something truly special.
*Action research, as I learned that day, is a “form of inquiry that enables educators in every job or walk of life to investigate and evaluate their work” (McNiff and Whitehead).