A Day in the Life of a Discovery and Learning Officer

by ZSL on

A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL London Zoo is never dull. From hissing cockroaches to swinging gibbons, Discovery and Learning Officer Belgin Green outlines a typical day in education.

Today I arrived at ZSL London Zoo at 8.30am as usual.  The first job of the day is to tend to the animals we keep in the education building. We have a whole range of species that we look after in our corner of the zoo, from brown rats and giant African land snails to giant millipedes and axolotls, all of whom assist us in bringing our interactive sessions to life. 

Axolotl
An axolotl at ZSL London Zoo

This week, I’m on snake duty. We have four corn snakes that we look after, who need to be checked on every day. I check the temperature of their vivariums (enclosures) and change their water – though they don’t need feeding at the moment as they are in brumation, a type of hibernation, meaning they don’t eat until this natural energy saving state is over.

I’m teaching two different sessions today. First, our brand new Plastics: Impacts & Actions session for Key Stage 2 students over in the Activity Den, followed by two sessions of Rainforest Explorer in the rainforest learning space. Before the first one kicks off at 10.30am, I make sure I’ve prepped all my resources for the day. On a day like today with such diverse sessions, this includes everything from activity booklets and microscopes to binoculars and thermometers.

I walk across the Zoo past the penguins (all 70 of them!) to our learning space in the Activity Den, to set things up ready for the first session. Plastics: Impacts & Actions is our newest session in which students explore how our use of plastic impacts on the environment and identifies ways they can make positive changes to help our planet. The class arrive fresh from visiting the Zoo’s aquarium, where we send them first to explore the marine world they’re about to discuss. Having just seen the very species affected by plastics as well as a thought provoking tank full of plastic bottles, the direct application of what they are learning about is much clearer to them. 

Plastics Impacts and Actions session

We start off by running through some facts and figures about the importance of the oceans and why we need to protect them, with students having a go at voting on the answers to some plastic-related questions. Following this they split up into groups to tackle some hands on tasks we’ve set up for them. These include evaluating the positives and negatives of different types of bottles (from single use plastic bottles to reusable glass ones), discussing how different types of plastic may affect sea creatures, and determining the value for money of reusable bottles vs single use.  At the end of the class, the students vote again on the answers to the same questions as the beginning, and it’s always impressive to see the improvement in knowledge. 

At midday I head back over to the education building to drop off some of the resources, fill up my reusable water bottle and most importantly pick up my helpers for our rainforest explorer sessions – two of our Madagascan hissing cockroaches, Charlie and Caspar. I pop them into their carry box with some food and head over to our other learning space which is tucked behind the rainforest exhibit – an immersive walkthrough enclosure where monkeys and sloths can climb right above your head. 

My first class for the afternoon’s Rainforest Explorer sessions are a Year 3 class who arrive at 12.30pm. In this 45 minute session, students get to the chance to become scientific explorers themselves. Following an introduction to the different layers of the rainforest, they head out into our rainforest enclosure in groups armed with thermometers, spotters’ guides and binoculars to see which species they can track down. The joy and surprise on the pupils’ faces when they spot a sloth climbing slowly overhead, or an anteater clambering past them, is one of my favourite parts of the job. Once they return to the classroom we discuss which animals they spotted, as well as how they’re adapted to the different parts of the rainforest.

Sloth in Rainforest Life at ZSL London Zoo
A sloth in the Rainforest Life exhibit at ZSL London Zoo

It’s at this point that my invertebrate assistants play their part. After discussing the adaptations of a Madagascan hissing cockroach using a picture, I reveal that I’ve brought one with me for them to meet – this is usually met with a great deal of excitement! I take Charlie round and allow them each to gently stroke one finger along his back. Though many are a little apprehensive initially, once they’ve seen their friends and teachers are brave enough, most will drum up the courage to have a go. 

Using real animals like this helps us to bring the topic to life, and provides an incredibly memorable experience that students may not have had before. 

In the final part of the session, I introduce some of the issues that the rainforest and its animals are facing, such as deforestation. I advise the class students that they themselves can help the rainforest, not only by reducing and recycling but also by simply checking all the paper items they use, both at school and at home, bear the FSC symbol, confirming that its production isn’t contributing to deforestation.

Directly after my second rainforest session of the afternoon, a year three student approaches me waving her tissue packet in triumph, declaring she’s found the FSC symbol. I was able to tell her then and there that she was helping protect the rainforest, to which she was thrilled.

Around 2.30pm the majority of our school visitors head homewards and following my last session of the day, it’s time for a late lunch. I’ll often take a wander around the Zoo at lunchtime, making sure to visit the big cats, which are my absolute favourites. 

Northern white-cheeked gibbon
A northern white-cheeked gibbon

Last thing in the day, I’ll get down to some office work. At the moment I’m redeveloping our Bones and Movement session, based on the feedback we’ve had from teachers, but also so that we can incorporate some of the Zoo’s newest additions into the session, such as the gibbons, Jimmy and Yoda. Our brachiating gibbons, are the perfect animals to discuss in the session to illustrate how an animal’s skeleton helps it move in a unique way. They’re a fantastic addition to the Zoo – if you arrive early enough in the morning, you can often hear their song calling at you from across the canal. I’m very lucky to be able to teach in such a unique setting!

Find out more about our school visits and education sessions 

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