Teacher Tracy Greeley Howard calls it “the best kept secret in Cincinnati” and count us among those who are shocked that there’s anybody who doesn’t know about this unique arrangement between that city’s school district and its zoo.
The Zoo Academy, where Howard teaches, is a program connected to Cincinnati’s Hughes STEM High School. The academy is one of that schools’ career tech programs, the current manifestation of a relationship between the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens and the Zoo Academy program.
High school juniors and seniors (about 50 students in all) attend the academy, located on zoo grounds. Two days a week, students spend half the day with zoo staff—in the elephant house, with horticulture, or aquatics. They might also work alongside welders, plumbers, and other staff. In other words, says Howard, “not everything is a zookeeper position just in case you thought you liked animals but maybe you don't want to have to take a shower every day when you come home.”
If there’s a better high school career-tech option out there, we’d like to hear it. The Cincinnati Zoo is home to more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species, making it one of the largest zoo collections in the country.
Howard, who was recently interviewed on the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System podcast, brings the perfect background to the job. Howard is a former researcher at the University of Cincinnati, a former zookeeper at Elmwood Park Zoo outside Philadelphia, and a longtime teacher, too. She has also taught in Cincinnati schools for 20 years.
“I'm very lucky, you know, if I’m having a bad day I'll say, ‘come on, let's go.’ And I can teach a class outside. Or literally right down the hallway is our sloth exhibit. Or out the windows, we can see the giraffes.”
Howard calls the learning experience “totally immersive.” She teaches a veterinary tech class, anatomy, physiology, and environmental science. She heads to the animal exhibits as much as possible. “We're here on campus. Let's not sit in this classroom. Let's go out and learn from what's out there comparing, you know how animals walk to you know what environment they're in.”
Prior to coming to the Zoo Academy, Howard was a health tech teacher at a different high school. One time at a national teachers’ conference, she spotted the Anatomy in Clay® Learning system booth. “I’m a very hands-on person,” says Howard. “It’s how I teach … and I was like, ‘this is so much better than some coloring sheets.’”
Howard used Donors Choose to help raise money to buy the models, adding an EQUIKEN® kit along the way as well. “We're on the zoo (grounds), but I can't have live animals in the classroom, so this is great for visualization.”
Howard is blunt about the hard work involved in teaching today. Coming back to classrooms after COVID, she says, students think they can multi-task and they are constantly distracted by trying to binge-watch videos or full television shows on their phones.
When the Anatomy in Clay® models come out, she says, students take photos of their creations and occasionally want to livestream to their parents as they work.
“Anyone who's had teenagers knows getting them to talk about school is hard,” says Howard. “So having children saying, ‘look Mom, look what I'm doing in school’ … they're excited about what they're making and you can't beat that.”