Zoo and Aquarium Education Programs Inspire Wonder | Blog | Nature


This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride month, Nature and WCS are sharing stories of nature and conservation from members of these communities. 

As the Director of Learning Experiences for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Zoos and Aquarium, I have the unique experience of supporting the educational and interpretive teams at each of our five parks. This can mean traveling to each park once a week (five parks/five days) and sometimes two parks in the same day!

It’s important to know what’s happening on the ground in each park and being present with our educational spaces, exhibits, and staff is incredibly valuable. As a member of both the LGBTQIA+ and Latinx/Hispanic communities, I also feel that it is necessary to represent my communities in all of the work that I do. I am passionate about making educational spaces feel safe, accessible, and most importantly fun.

Marcos working at the Bronx Zoo Overnight Safari. Photo credit: Marcos Stafne/WCS.

I never imagined that I would have spent a career in education. Though I was really enthusiastic about science as a student, I had wanted to be an actor. Unfortunately, I don’t like people telling me what to do or doing the same thing twice. Fortunately, I learned that theater is a great tool for introducing people to science, and I started my career in science communication on-stage, performing science demonstrations and animal shows at the Orlando Science Center in Florida.

Through this work, I learned that I was passionate about making science accessible.

While many of my colleagues at WCS have backgrounds in studying and understanding wildlife and wild places, my on-the-ground work with students and visitors led me to study how people process place, space, and time throughout their lives—and how educational and personal experiences contribute to their current identity.

My doctoral work in urban education examined how people from various educational backgrounds became museum educators and what methods of preparation helped them to be successful in their careers. Museum and Zoo/Aquarium educators must navigate deeply emotional spaces with their participants. We utilize emotions like awe and wonder to help make deep connections with our messages about conservation and science.

Reviewing the new Sea Change Exhibit with a special friend at the New York Aquarium. Photo credit: Stephanie Joseph/WCS.

Walking through The Tropics exhibit in the Central Park Zoo, or Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo, or standing in front of the Hudson Canyon exhibit at the New York Aquarium, you are transported in both body and mind to those environments—creating an emotional tie to the animals that live there and an urgency to advocate for their well-being.

Beyond environments, the educators and staff of a museum, zoo, or aquarium also matter to the dynamic experience of learning. And when a person you are learning from also represents who you are, it can make the world of difference to your experience. When you see someone like you engaging in science, it can help you begin to formulate your identity as a science person.

As the pandemic has trudged on, learner experience in schools has been rocky at best. We’ve seen an increase in students and teachers utilizing our parks as a moment of respite and inspiration for our communities. Our team works hard to not only provide high quality program experiences, but ones that are also rich in diversity and authentic voices.

Testing out a magical space at the New York Aquarium. Photo credit: Stephanie Joseph/WCS.

I loved my early-career jobs in science engagement, and was incredibly lucky to be in welcoming, inclusive environments that were queer-friendly and supported BIPOC advancement in leadership in nonprofits. Having worked in a myriad of nonprofits, not all of them have been as welcoming, and I have had to hide aspects of both my Latinx/Hispanic and Queer identities to conform to institutional norms.

Participating in employee resource groups has been in an opportunity to offer visible support. I co-lead the Latinx/Hispanic employee resource group for WCS and participate in the LGBTQIA+ group. I think it’s important for folks to know that there are others out there that are like them, and to use my role within the organization and community to advocate for positive change.

This is incredibly important as we navigate our current pandemic/post-pandemic lived experience together and think of a more equitable future filled with wonder. As Thornton Wilder notes in the end of his play, Our Town, “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you… Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

Marcos’ favorite WCS animal (and yes, he’s allowed to have a favorite), Chablis, the horse at the Queens Zoo. Photo credit: Marcos Stafne/WCS

We may not be able to consciously take in all the glorious phenomena that fills our lives, but environments like museums, zoos, and aquariums help us to slow down, open our eyes to the natural world around us, and consider how we can contribute to our overall global well-being. When everyone is welcomed to this experience and valued for their authentic self, we have the capacity to learn how wonderful this world of ours really is.

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