Wild Science Race

Throughout National Science Week, hundreds of school students and community members competed in the Wild Science Race at the Taronga Zoo. Led by advanced science students at Macquarie University and the zoo’s education and science teams, the event featured interactive challenges that promoted wildlife conservation and resource management.

I attended on the community day as part of Sydney Science Festival. However, the Wild Science Race had been happening all week, with over 200 students engaging in the activities.

What the Race entailed

Upon arrival, participants received a “passport” filled with questions to answer at each of six checkpoints scattered throughout the zoo. The wind chill did not deter them from achieving their goals as they raced around the zoo with the Sydney skyline as a backdrop.

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Tasks included:

  • Placing animal figurines in their appropriate habitats
  • Drawing the feet of birds from around the zoo
  • Testing the effects of oil on bird feathers
  • Trying popular fishing methods
  • Matching body parts of different bears
  • Explaining ecosystem balance through “trophic jenga.”

Each challenge was designed to educate community members on topics ranging from biodiversity to human impacts on wildlife.

The Wild Science Race promoted the students’ research in an innovative and interactive way. One of the organisers, Brittany Gilchrist, claimed that, “The best part of this project is seeing how the kids react when they understand their impacts.”

The kids’ level of engagement throughout the week intrigued the students running the stations. Many remarked on the amount the kids already knew, that they were meeting future scientists.

Amelia Armstrong, part of the “Trophic Jenga” group, commented that she was, “surprised by how much the kids were discussing the problems with each other and working together.”

In this group activity, participants removed jenga pieces labelled with different species. The species on the bottom tiles represented the bottom of the food chain, so when kids removed them, the tower, or “ecosystem,” collapsed.

“They didn’t want to just pick their favourite animal. They really thought about which tiles they were choosing, which is what we were aiming for” added another group member, Rhiannon Cunningham.

Learning to communicate science

Now in its second year, the Wild Science Race was designed as a learning experience for Macquarie University’s advanced science students as part of an ongoing, science-communication group project. These students had been working on their activities since February.

“Creating and delivering the activities for the ‘Wild Science Race’ provides these undergrads with a challenging assessment that develops critical thinking skills and provides the opportunity to communicate science to the community,” said Michelle Power, Associate Professor at Macquarie University. “They really stand up to the challenge and come up with fantastic ideas to showcase conservation science.”

“It’s a bit different from other sorts of study, because we aren’t sitting in a lecture theatre,” added Stephen Armsworth, a student who helped organise one of the activities.

Another student, Casey Forster, explained that the project taught her new ways to communicate information from a scientific perspective to the general public.

“It was also really interesting to listen and learn about what people already know.”

The Macquarie students’ passion for their science communication activity and research was contagious. Their lively interactions with the participants spread their excitement, and encouraged the kids to continue the discussion, even after leaving the station.

Wrapping up the day on behalf of the program presenters, Hayley Middleton commented, “Kids are the next generation, and they can get their parents involved as well.”

Explaining complicated concepts to children is not easy, especially with the added pressure of making learning an exciting activity. These university students embraced the challenge of communicating science to children and their families.

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Guest post by Jordana Mednick, a student from the USA on exchange at University of Sydney and interning with Inspiring Australia.