Fossil Rim Wildlife Center had even more wildlife knowledge than usual within its fences Jan. 13-15 for the annual Texas Aquarium and Zoo Educators (TAZE) Conference.
The event brings educators statewide together to discuss programs and facility updates, as well as introduce each other to new ideas and possibilities. The location changes each time, as Fossil Rim previously hosted nearly a decade ago. There were 39 attendees this year.
Beyond Fossil Rim, Ellen Trout Zoo (Lufkin), Cameron Park Zoo (Waco), Dallas Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo, Austin Nature and Science Center, Abilene Zoo, San Antonio Zoo and Caldwell Zoo (Tyler) also had representatives in attendance. Institutions to send picture slides with updates on their activities included Moody Gardens (Galveston), Dallas World Aquarium, El Paso Zoo and Downtown Aquarium (Houston). All told, there are 17 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions in Texas.
For Paige Rudasics, educator at the Abilene Zoo, it was her second year to partake.
“I think the most valuable (aspect) is the networking that you’re able to do with this group,” she said. “We touch on a lot of topics, but really getting to learn what other zoos and facilities are doing in their (education) department is important. (Fossil Rim’s The) Lorax (homeschool course) that they do for school groups was the most fun activity to me. They let everyone participate, so we’re able to get a little goofy and it was a lot of fun.”
Rudasics elaborated on the benefits of the conference in general.
“This is our career and our passion,” she said. “We’re all really good at what we do, and we’re all going to have different ideas in the way we go about putting programs together. Being able to share ideas – you go from a couple of brains thinking about a problem to 40 people who’ve encountered most of the same problems you have. This is a great way to bring creativity and new experiences into what we do.”
Her Abilene Zoo will actually host the conference in 2017.
“We definitely saw that James (Morgan, Fossil Rim camp manager) put a lot of work into it, and we know a lot of work will be required when we host,” Rudasics said. “We’re really excited and we have some great ideas after seeing how the event flows. Every year, someone brings something new to the conference and different topics are discussed.”
Betsy Crites, supervisor for family and intergenerational learning at the Dallas Zoo, was also in her second year of attendance.
“(Fossil Rim) had a great conversation about homeschool programs,” Crites said. “Here, they have two staff members who homeschool their children, so it was great to hear from both the institution perspective and the parent perspective. I really enjoyed our big (Family) tour of Fossil Rim.
“I’ve never been here before, and for most of us this is so unlike the zoos that we come from. It’s fun and different.”
She recalled gaining other new ideas to apply in her job.
“Abilene (Zoo) was talking about some of their night hikes and scavenger hunts,” she said. “I’m in charge of the overnight programs at the Dallas Zoo, and it’s interesting to hear what other people are doing. I plan to talk to them about it in the future.”
Crites appreciates the camaraderie of the conference.
“We’re all doing educational programs at zoos, and this is a time when we really come to work together with other institutions instead of just sitting at our computers trying to figure it out on our own,” she said.
Laurel Shannon, education coordinator at Cameron Park Zoo, experienced her sixth conference.
“I think the format of the conference has changed (over time),” she said. “We used to do a lot of roundtable talks, but we found out those weren’t as beneficial as we intended. Every year, the hosts make it their own conference and we might do a lot of the same things, but we share in a different way.
“It makes it more fun and active instead of just listening to lectures. The whole aspect of networking and sharing is what really helps with this conference.”
Shannon mentioned some notable activities from the week.
“Driving through the park with (Fossil Rim tour guide) Sara (Paulsen) was valuable,” she said. “We have giraffes at our zoo, but we learned some new information about them. The most fun thing was probably making the craft that San Antonio Zoo brought.
“It was very simple and basic, but it was such a great idea that we’re going to use it for our camps this summer. Everybody is sharing things that are fun, so you can keep things fresh in your own zoo.”
Similar to Crites, the homeschool discussions caught Shannon’s ear.
“Hearing from someone who does homeschooling in his family and seeing his perspective as to why he does it helped us realize how we can fashion our programs toward homeschoolers,” she said regarding Mark Phillips, Fossil Rim homeschool coordinator.
Shannon pointed out the significant difference in size between some of the institutions at the conference and how it was valuable to hear from people with differing situations.
“It really helps to get perspective from other people,” she said. “You have zoos like Dallas Zoo with a contingent of 12 people here, while from our zoo it was just my boss and I who do nearly everything for our education department. It’s interesting to see the different dynamic between larger zoos and smaller ones. We can take some things from them and vice versa.”
After everyone went their separate ways on the final day, Fossil Rim’s Morgan thanked coworkers who lent a hand.
“It takes a lot of moving parts (to host), because you’re not just working within the education department, you’re working with a full team of people – animal care, animal health, the (Overlook) café – I can’t explain how helpful (manager) John (Ladesic) was, tours – thank goodness we have a great tours department, plus people in administration – Kelley (Snodgrass) and Doc (Pat Condy) both came and talked,” Morgan said.
He wasn’t quite done.
“As far as the three of us, I feel really grateful that Mark and Katie (Hunholz, Fossil Rim programs coordinator) were willing to just ask me what I needed and then do it, even though I’m not their supervisor,” Morgan said. “Tessa (Ownbey, Fossil Rim education director) just let me do my thing.”
Morgan said he began game planning soon after the 2015 TAZE Conference.
“The majority of our activities were different excuses to get them out in the park, because that’s what Fossil Rim is about,” he said. “That included a variety of things like visiting the vet clinic or the Grevy’s (zebra) Pasture. Justin (Smith, Fossil Rim rhino keeper) did a presentation on rhinos, which was really cool. We spent a lot of time in workshops sharing facility updates.
“San Antonio Zoo really helped out. They did a workshop on developmentally appropriate programs for different age groups and another one on the importance of evaluating the programs being utilized.”
Morgan recalled some activities he set up that were well-received.
“Like Paige said, The Lorax program was a great one,” he said. “We decided to include it at the last minute, and it was awesome. The Discovery After Dark Tour got a great response.
“I also think they loved the S’more Bar. We had a campfire going with a bunch of different types of ingredients they could mix and match.”
All in all, he was very pleased with how the week went.
“I realized the appreciation of working together and how good a well-planned event can go,” he said. “I was thankful we got beautiful weather. Everything went perfectly the way I wanted.”
Like the aforementioned educators, Morgan valued the opportunity to share among institutions.
“I think it’s very important to be able to network and make sure these ideas are spread throughout these organizations,” he said. “That way, we reach so many more people. We’re all working for the same goal of education, so we should work together.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate