FORT WORTH -- Kathy Dorris gave up the principal's office at a schoolhouse for a job as the director of education at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Leaving her job in Weatherford last year just as school districts began cinching their budgets tighter because of a drop in state support and continued flat property tax growth, Dorris had a feeling that the zoo needed to find ways to reach elementary school students beyond greeting yellow school buses at the front entrance of the 64-acre park.
"It used to be a given that schoolchildren could come to the zoo on a field trip, but that's not necessarily true anymore with budgets the way they are," Dorris said. "That's especially true for some of the smaller districts, where fuel is not an insignificant cost. We needed another vehicle to reach kids."
The answer for Dorris came by investing in much-needed technology and joining Connect 2 Texas, a network of museums and scientific nonprofit organizations that provide lessons via video conferencing for a relatively modest fee.
These "virtual field trips" have been available, for example, at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Sid Richardson Museum, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas for several years.
But the Fort Worth Zoo is the first in Texas to join, and one of only a handful in the nation that beam live animals into classrooms.
"We want to get children more interested in the outdoors," said Michael Fouraker, the zoo's director of 10 years. "We're always trying with our educational programs to get kids involved in science, get them outdoors and looking around, get them to explore on their own and perhaps look at science as a career. Lots of studies have shown that if a child is looking at a live animal, they retain so much more. With this, it's not live, but it's live on the television."
First programs free
The zoo took its first steps in April by offering schools a lesson on food chains and predator/prey relationships. The first 12 programs were free to schools in Alvarado, Decatur, Godley, Aledo, Burleson and others as the zoo's education department fine-tuned its work.
It was a good thing no one paid for it, joked Sarah Pennebaker, the education coordinator who leads and teaches most of the video conferences.
"Those first 12 I was pretty stiff," she said.
Because talking into a camera is a learned behavior, Pennebaker actually taped a photo of Texas actor Matthew McConaughey next to the camera so she would know where to look. (It's not there anymore.)
She also learned when to pause to wait for reactions from the children in the classrooms or give it an extra second or two for the sound to catch up.
The students across Texas and the nation -- it's common to have schools from other states -- pay a fee to participate in an educational program that is tailored to state curriculum standards.
"If you're going to get schools to pay for it, you've got to tie it to the [Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills]," Dorris said.
The Fort Worth Zoo normally charges $100 for a 45-minute lesson, although they sometimes discount it. The schools and the zoo are patched together through the Fort Worth-based Region 11 Education Service Center, which hosts and manages the Connect 2 Texas program.
In October, Pennebaker offered schools a "Spooky Creatures of the Night" theme with a barn owl, opossum, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and bats. Questions and answers, hoots and hollers, animal noises and more are allowed because everyone can see and hear everyone else.
"We tried having them muted on their end, but you miss the reaction that makes it a real educational experience," Pennebaker said. "You want to hear that 'whoa' or 'ewww' from the kids."
About 25,000 schoolchildren visit the zoo every year on field trips, and Fouraker and Dorris hope that number doesn't drop next year in the spring.
"Nothing can substitute for being in the actual park," Dorris said.
But, she said, it is vital that the zoo "try to meet kids where they are," and that means using technology.
The zoo has also invested heavily in laptops for its zoo camp and launched a "Safari Sam" blog on the website.
"The opportunity through electronic and social media to take the Fort Worth Zoo's message and multiply that to an almost endless number of people is fascinating," Fouraker said. "We're able to reach places and children who might never be able to visit the zoo."
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547