ACA Week:Jessica Sickler on Evaluating Zoos

I’m Jessica Sickler, and I work as a research and evaluation consultant, as a senior researcher and manager of the Lifelong Learning Group.  My career began in a zoo; in answer to the obligatory cocktail party question, “No, I did not shovel the poop.”  I started as an internal evaluator at the Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo), and have continued to work with zoos and aquariums nationwide to understand what, how, and why visitors learn in this context.

Lessons Learned:

  • Zoos care deeply about visitor learning, and seek to achieve learning outcomes in “the wild” of the zoo visitation context.  Free-choice learning settings cede a lot of control to the learner.  At a zoo, you cede a lot of control to nature – weather, seasonality, and the unpredictability of a living collection.  We examine learning experiences of audiences spending a full day of leisure time dealing with weather conditions, sugar highs, gift shop temptations, and child meltdowns. The work of collecting data requires a positive attitude, a vat of sunscreen, and adaptability– I once completed an interview with two adults while their child tied his six-foot-long stuffed snake around my legs.
  • Zoos advance conservation of wildlife and habitats. For those where entrapment by five-year-olds is not a job hazard, a transferable lesson from zoo evaluation has to do with alignment.  A common feature across zoos is a mission to advance conservation of wildlife and habitats.  Zoo planning becomes an exercise in aligning exhibits, programs, and in-park experience to mission.  It begs the question “what are reasonable conservation-supporting outcome expectations for a single, four-hour zoo visit?”  As an evaluator, I have found value in helping map the connections.
  • Zoos promote learning. Another question of alignment surrounds expectations and experience.  While the zoo has its educational agenda, visitors arrive with different sets expectations.  Although learning may be a factor, other factors can’t be ignored – especially social value, since most visitors come as families. In one study, we gave visitors the prompt: “Today’s visit reminded me of something important, and that was…”  Although project planners hoped for responses exhibiting thinking about one’s place in a global environment, the answer was essentially, “That it’s so important to spend time together as a family.”  Visitors’ expectations and values shape meaning-making during their visit; the evaluator’s role is helping teams understand these attributes and see them as opportunities to extend caring and concern to the natural world.

Rad Resources

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluator.

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