A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Where the Wild Things Are

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty on April 1, 2009


At the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., Happy is more than a  state of mind—he’s a 5,500-pound Nile hippopotamus. According to Happy’s zookeeper, the animal is 28 years old and measures just over 10 feet long. And he’s one hungry, hungry hippo.

It’s lunch time, and a group of 15 Mason students gather round to see Happy’s meal. Their visit to the park is part of their semester-long residence program known as the Smithsonian–Mason Semester, a partnership between the two institutions to groom the next wave of conservation biology leaders.

One of the students, Ricky Hutchinson, gets the lucky task of feeding Happy some apples. The hippo’s huge jaws creak open, revealing a wall of pink skin and some pretty mean-looking teeth. Hutchinson, a senior in integrative studies concentrating in conservation, slowly throws in apple after apple like some strange carnival game. Every three or four apples, Happy clamps his mouth shut to swallow the fruit before opening wide for more. Streams of saliva cascade from Happy’s mouth. He is one happy, happy hippo.

This event isn’t some typical field trip to the zoo. The Mason students have met with animal keepers and scientists from the Smithsonian all day long, learning about topics at the forefront of conservation biology, including panda artificial insemination, the chytrid fungus that’s been attacking amphibian populations around the world, and research on bird glass strike.

That’s the idea behind the Smithsonian–Mason Semester: it’s a 16-credit integrated learning community, where students live among and learn from prominent research scientists, educators, and conservation practitioners for an entire semester. And all of this takes place, save for the field trips, at the National Zoological Park Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Virginia.

“A resident program is a way to fully engage undergraduates in a robust learning environment,” says Tom Wood, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’96 and director of the program and the Mason Center for Conservation Studies. “We have numerous researchers from the Smithsonian, faculty from the university, and professionals from NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] all interacting with our students around real-world conservation issues.”

Creating the Collaboration

This innovative program was a long time in the making. Wood was hired as a faculty member in 1996 by Mason’s New Century College (NCC) to develop conservation programs. He knew right from the start that he wanted to start an experiential learning program for conservation students.

“There was a lot of discussion in the conservation community in the 1990s that there was a deficiency in higher education in the practice of conservation biology,” says Wood.

Pairing Smithsonian’s scientists with Mason’s students was one viable way to overcome this obstacle. Wood is, after all, a product of a different Smithsonian and Mason partnership when he earned his doctorate from Mason while doing his graduate work at the Smithsonian. So along with his Smithsonian colleagues Chris Wemmer and Steve Monfort, PhD Environmental Science and Policy ’93 (who’s now acting director of the National Zoological Park), Wood looked into starting a program out at CRC’s Front Royal campus.

In 2000, he and Monfort received a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education to find out what they needed to reform conservation education. The result provided the framework for the residency program. Wood had already been taking class field trips with his NCC students out to the CRC since 1998, but it wasn’t until 2003 that resident Mason classes began out at the 3,200-acre facility. At first, they were scheduled during winter and spring breaks, but last year, the inaugural semester-long program was launched.

Smithsonian Science

Of the 15 students enrolled in the program this year, most come from NCC, but because only one introductory science course is required for admission, there are a few with nonscience backgrounds such as communication. The program was designed to be interdisciplinary since the world of conservation biology certainly is. The courses are grounded in natural science, but students also learn about public policy, sociology, and conflict resolution issues from the best in the field of conservation biology.

The five semester courses are designed to examine real-world conservation issues with real-world complexities, says Wood. Students apply concepts they learn in lectures, labs, and fieldwork activities to case studies they construct throughout the semester. All of this happens through interaction with researchers, faculty, and the NGO community.

And it’s true what they say: the program’s success has relied on location, location, location. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the facility is home to between 30 and 40 endangered species, such as Eld’s deer, red pandas, clouded leopards, and black-footed ferrets. Smithsonian zookeepers work with these animals, and students can volunteer to shadow a keeper for a day. There are also research facilities, including a geographic information systems lab, endocrine and gamete labs, a veterinary clinic, and a radio-tracking lab.

“This is a very vibrant place,” says Anne Marchant, associate director of the program. “A lot of people come through here doing research, so we take advantage of that.”

Migratory Bird Center fieldwork

Students Leanne Creger, Michelle Waterman, and Kristen Culp work on bird banding in the field with teaching assistant Herlitz Davis of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center.

A graduate of the program last year, Kristen Culp, BS Integrative Studies ’08, recalls an incident at an internship she secured at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, an open-space conservation park in central Texas. A keeper there showed her a technique that she realized she had learned firsthand from its creator, a Smithsonian scientist who visited the CRC during her time there.

Lasting Connections

But it’s not just the real-world experience that students take away from the program; it’s also the real-world connections to Smithsonian scientists.

Back at the zoo, walking in between appointments with Smithsonian scientists, the students chat animatedly among themselves, talking about their favorite animals. There’s the student who loves kiwi birds from New Zealand and another who has a thing for reptiles.

Lisa Sinclair

Student Lisa Sinclair holds an owl during a banding exercise.

For animal lovers of all stripes, this is the program to be in. The reptile lover, junior Virginia Griffith, got to meet Ed Smith, a zookeeper in the park’s Amazonia exhibit. This is how it goes in this program—every day the students make connections with the people who can help them further their careers in conservation.

“If I hadn’t had these connections I made with scientists at the CRC, I don’t think I would’ve been able to break into the zoo-keeping field,” says Culp. “It’s all about who you know.”

Graduates of the program are prepped for all types of jobs in the world of conservation, from zoo keeping to policymaking to research.

Plans are in the works to expand the program, including a new facility that could house up to 120 students slated for a 2012 opening. Marchant and Wood also hope to add a fall semester in addition to the current spring semester and run three cohorts of 20 students each term.

Maxing the cohorts out at 20 students will maintain the program’s small-group feel, a key part of the experiential learning environment. “Directors from the Smithsonian sit down and talk with us at dinner,” says current student Lauren Reiter, a graduate of Miami University. “They know my generation is the next step in conservation and that we have to work together.”


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