Philadelphia Zoo Launches West Philadelphia Zoo Scholars Program
Philadelphia Zoo has been a part of the West Philadelphia community for nearly 150 years. As an institution that strives to connect people to wildlife and inspire action to protect habitats, we want students who live immediately beyond the edges of the Zoo to be a part of that mission.
A brand-new collaborative education program is now bringing students inside the Zoo to become West Philadelphia Zoo Scholars, and become the next generation of leaders that will care and advocate for wildlife and wild places. This teen workforce development program launched this spring and has one central objective: to inspire interest and provide access to the zoological and conservation career field to the young people that live in West Philadelphia.
“When I was a teenager, I had no idea that you can turn your hobbies or something you loved into a career,” says Bethany Housman, Director of School and Community Partnerships. “My hope with this program is to connect young people in West Philadelphia who are inspired by nature and animals to see the Zoo as a place for them, just like the local parks throughout their neighborhoods. While at the Zoo, they can begin gaining experience that will enhance their college applications and jumpstart their career.”
June 3, 2023 was the final session for the Zoo’s first cohort of high school sophomores, beginning their seven-year journey through the program. Twenty-two students spent the semester gaining access and insight into conservation career fields. As a part of the program, the Zoo will be mentoring and offering scholarships to these students from now through their senior year of high school, and through college, if they decide to enter a career in the zoological or conservation fields.
“During one of our first sessions we were able to take a hike through Fairmount Park lead by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and My Philly Park,” says Housman. “Our guide, Nicole Hameen, Community Program Coordinator for Fairmount Park Conservancy, made it a point to tell our Scholars all of the spaces we were entering were for them and that they were welcome at all times. During one stop, one of our scholars tilted their head up to the sunlight and said, ‘I can’t believe this place exists and is right here. I’m definitely going to come back here a lot.’ We know for a fact spending more time in nature improves your overall quality of life – if we’ve improved one young person in West Philadelphia’s quality of life – we’ve been successful in our mission.”
The first cohort of sophomore Scholars learned about the three essential needs of survival for all living things – food, water, and habitat. Scholars used the Zoo as a living classroom, experiencing firsthand how food is purchased, grown, stored, and fed directly to the Zoo’s collection of 1,900 animals.
“It was great to see how the Scholars began to understand how all life is connected through shared needs, and how this connection is essential for the ongoing health of ecosystems and people,” says Darien Manning, the Zoo’s Youth Programs Educator.
Scholars visited the Brewerytown Community Garden and experienced firsthand how local gardening provides a sustainable food source for several hundred families in their neighborhoods. Onsite at the Zoo, they participated in activities ranging from storytelling about the importance of conserving endangered animals to touring the Zoo’s vertical farm. The spring semester culminated with activities encouraging Scholars to inspire others by sharing the information they learned regarding food, water, and habitat loss effecting humans and animals worldwide.
“I really enjoyed watching the Scholars become curious about a specific topic by asking a seemingly random question about it,” says Manning. “Questions like: are cacti trees? Can salt water become fresh water? This, to me, showed how engaged they were and how they wanted to learn even more.”
Next school year, Scholars have the opportunity to continue the program as juniors in high school; a new cohort of sophomores will begin their journey, too. In three years, West Philadelphia Zoo Scholars will be a group of 75 young people engaged in programming at the sophomore, junior, and senior level. At full scale, this program aims to support the career journey of 5 future zookeepers, 5 veterinary professionals, and 10 environmental science professionals annually.
“West Philadelphia Zoo Scholars was designed to increase interest in the zoological and wildlife career fields while simultaneously taking responsibility to decrease the many barriers of entry,” says Housman. “We cannot ignore the list of barriers is even longer for the teens we connect with who represent primarily low-income neighborhoods that are 75% Black and Latino, a demographic historically underrepresented in STEM-related fields. We are here to provide support, experiences and guidance to our Scholars to ensure they can have the opportunity to change the world. The West Philadelphia Zoo Scholars are the future of conservation; I am excited to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them one day.”
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