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Seeking new ways to help people understand the impact of climate change, the National Science Foundation program on Climate Change Education has awarded a $1 million grant to the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo. CZS is leading a collaboration of specialists to develop plans for a national Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network and new approaches to connecting zoo visitors to polar animals that are endangered by climate change.

Collaborators include educators, climate scientists, education researchers, computer scientists, and psychologists for partner institutions, including nine U.S. zoos, Polar Bears International, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Pennsylvania State University.

“This is a new approach to climate change education. Zoos are centers of informal science learning and they appeal to people who care about animals and the environment,” said Alejandro Grajal, Ph.D., senior vice president of conservation, education, and training for CZS. “The partner zoos involved in this project reach a diverse audience of 13 million visitors annually. We are interested in the roles zoos have in science education and in helping people understand what they can do to help the environment.”

He gives the example of Brookfield Zoo’s new Great Bear Wilderness, in which some exhibit messages address climate change and how it may affect polar bears. “We want to find out what works on an emotional learning level to help people understand the effects of climate change,” Grajal said.

The $1 million planning grant supports establishing the Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network. It will also fund project research and support creation of a plan that will likely include computer learning using Web sites, games, and even Facebook. Once completed, the plan will be submitted to NSF to seek additional funds for implementation.

The nine partner zoos are Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, OH; Como Zoo & Conservatory, St. Paul, MN; Indianapolis Zoo, IN; Louisville Zoological Garden, KY; Oregon Zoo, Portland, OR; Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, PA; Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI; and Toledo Zoological Gardens, OH, as well as the conservation organization Polar Bears International. The leadership also includes the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. The partnership is joined by experts in conservation psychology and an external advisory board that includes the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

“The Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network will advance new frontiers in learning research. We know people learn more when it involves something they care about—like animals,” said Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society. “It’s another way that zoos can continue to play an increasing role in helping people, who visit zoos because they love to see the animals, increase their understanding of complex issues about our environment.”