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The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, is announcing the latest developments in its Climate Literacy Initiative, which will help educate zoo and aquarium visitors in 15 cities around the country.

CZS is leading a collaboration of zoological, education, science, and research specialists in developing plans for a national Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CliZEN). The initiative, which is the first of its kind for zoos, will explore new approaches to science education by connecting zoo and aquarium visitors to polar animals—including polar bears—whose lives are threatened by climate change.

“We know that most science learning takes place outside of the classroom, like here at Brookfield Zoo. Animals and their well-being are our passion, and we have a responsibility as science educators to raise awareness of climate change and its effects on both wildlife and people. We want to show people how they can help make a difference,” said Stuart D. Stahl, Ph.D., president and CEO of CZS.

Dr. Alejandro Grajal, senior vice president of conservation and education at CZS, is leading the distinguished team of principal investigators who are developing the national initiative.

“We need to increase climate awareness among the public, and we have an excellent opportunity to educate our visitors with the face-to-face realities of climate change through their connection and experiences with animals they see at zoos and aquariums. We want people of all ages to understand that we all can help address the threats of climate change to wildlife and to people,” said Dr. Grajal.

In 2010, the Network received a $1 million planning grant from the National Science Foundation Program on Climate Change Education. Once developed, the innovative program has the potential to reach more than 20 million visitors annually with information about climate change and the impact it has on wildlife and the environment.

As part of the plan, Brookfield Zoo and 14 additional North American zoos and aquariums will conduct surveys with visitors to explore the links between their experiences and conservation behavior. This research will provide an unprecedented view of how zoo and aquarium visitors view climate change and nature conservation. The results will shape the role that zoos and aquariums play in science education to help improve climate change literacy. The results will also help the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) develop a plan for educating visitors about what they can do to help the environment. In addition, researchers hope to extend the zoo visit to inspire caring attitudes toward nature with the development of new virtual tools.

According to surveys, more than 77 percent of Americans are aware or worried about climate change and want to do something about it. A visit to a zoo, aquarium, and other places where people come face to face with the wonders of nature is an excellent way to be motivated to learn more about how to save the planet.

In March, several consortium participants met in Washington, D.C., with representatives of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation to discuss collaborations and the goal of exploring education approaches for the Climate Change Initiative that could be administered nationally.

“The top science organizations in the nation are interested in how we can use the power of people’s passion and interest in protecting animals and our planet to raise the understanding of climate change. That’s climate change literacy,” said Dr. Grajal. “This is a very exciting initiative with the potential to really make a difference by raising awareness and inspiring people to make positive changes for the Earth’s environment in their daily lives.”

Dr. Grajal is joined by principal investigators Susan R. Goldman, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology and education and codirector of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Michael E. Mann, Ph.D., professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. The partnership is joined by experts in conservation psychology, the conservation organization Polar Bears International, and an external advisory board that includes the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Besides Brookfield Zoo, the other 14 partner zoos and aquariums are Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco; Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Powell, Ohio; Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, Saint Paul, Minn.; Indianapolis Zoo, Ind.; John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago; Monterey Bay Aquarium, Calif.; National Aquarium, Baltimore; New England Aquarium, Boston; Oregon Zoo, Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Pa.; Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, R.I.; Louisville Zoo, Ky.; Toledo Zoo, Ohio; and Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

The Climate Awareness Initiative is a program of the Society’s Center for Conservation Leadership, which engages the community through education and training for conservation leaders of all ages and backgrounds, from toddlers to high school and college students to researchers and educators. This summer, students from the zoo’s Youth Conservation & Science Leadership Program will be stationed throughout the zoo to answer visitor questions and promote climate change awareness and education.