EPE TIG Week: Facilitation Styles in Environmental Education with Animals by Shuli Rank

Hi everyone, my name is Shuli Rank and I’m a Research and Evaluation Associate at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). WCS runs the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and Queens Zoo, and conducts local and global conservation and research around the world. I study the impacts of visits to our New York City Zoos and Aquarium on visitors’ attitudes and behaviors, and the impacts of our education programs on school children, families, youth (14 to 24 year-olds), and adults.

In 2019, we conducted exploratory research of the Bronx Zoo’s ambassador animal experiences. Ambassador animals, as described by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, are animals trained to interact with audiences to support educational and conservation goals, such as increasing knowledge and excitement about animals. While ambassador animal experiences are quite common at zoos and aquariums, little is understood about the impacts of these programs on participants. Zoo and aquarium staff often facilitate these experiences to answer questions, provide information, and monitor the animal’s well-being. However, little attention has been paid to how the facilitation style of these integral staff members impact the outcomes of these experiences.

We conducted observations of 20 programs that included a range of ambassador animals. All programs were fee based and the audience included multi-generational groups. Half of these programs were facilitated through a narrative style, with an introduction, middle, and end that focused on the individual animal and its natural history. The other half of programs observed were facilitated through an inquiry style, where the facilitator frequently asked participants questions, such as, “what do you observe?” We recorded the remarks (i.e. questions and comments) participants made, tracking both number of remarks and topic. We coded remarks into seven topics, including natural history, and animal care. After observations, we conducted group interviews with a single-family unit who participated in the program and analyzed their responses using the same codes used for observations to help us see how topics related to one another.

Lessons Learned

  • Whether the ambassador animal was a mammal, bird, or reptile did not influence how many questions participants asked about them. This suggested that participant curiosity was not tied to type of animal. This finding helps to address a field-wide question about whether type of animal presented makes a difference in visitor engagement.
  • Inquiry-led programs were particularly effective at sparking participants’ curiosity and interest in learning more about the animals and biology. This was likely because facilitators tended to prompt participants to think about natural history and animal adaptations. This finding suggests that inquiry-led experiences could deepen interest in other topics, like conservation, a key part of zoo and aquariums’ missions. Narrative programs offered opportunities for participants to ask a range of questions that reflected their individual interests, such as daily animal care, and provided opportunities for facilitators to encourage interest in wildlife through a personal lens.
  • Both types of facilitation allowed visitors to connect with ambassador animals in a variety of ways, all of which generated excitement and positive feelings. They spoke about how they felt closer to the animals they met, shared their appreciation of them, and attributed emotional states to them. These overwhelmingly positive experiences can be leveraged to support learning and behavior change. This aligns with other research that has demonstrated that positive emotional states can affect people’s willingness to perform prosocial behaviors. For ambassador animal programs, facilitators can encourage altruistic actions that participants can take to help wildlife.

Rad Resources


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our EPE TIG 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@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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