While studying abroad in China during the summer after my freshman year, I came across a zoo in Shanghai where the exhibited animals were obviously neglected. In the middle of the day, during the most intense heat of the summer, few animals had water and shade sources available to them. The pandas’ exhibit was only a concrete box with a pile of bamboo leaves in the corner. A baby goat actually escaped from its poorly constructed exhibit, and wandered around the zoo before I caught it and put it back.
As a result of this experience, when I returned to the United States I started an independent study project to investigate the world of zoos. Over the course of the next two years, I looked into the social, economic, and historical factors that have given the United States and China different attitudes towards animals. When I started running out of things to read, I contacted professionals working in conservation, education, and zoo design to hear their opinions and discoveries in their own words. I attended two national conferences and worked in an office on a conservation education project. In my senior year, I spent five weeks traveling through Southeast Asia with a professional delegation to promote positive human-animal relations and to network with other conservationists.
None of this was in the curriculum for any of my classes at High Tech High International, but at the same time much of my project would not have been possible without both the structure (and flexibility) of High Tech High and the support of International’s teachers and administrators. Over the course of the last two and half years, my opinions, goals, and outlook on life have been transformed with each new experience. The different perspectives I have gained from the people I’ve met have helped me to develop a much more nuanced worldview. The most important shift was my evolution from looking at architectural issues of exhibit design to focus on conservation education in China.
Originally, after discussing the state of zoos in China with several professionals and learning about the evolution of human-animal contact in China and America, I thought that reforming the architecture of zoo exhibits would be the best way to make positive change for animals. The Woodland Park Zoo’s revolutionary development of immersive-style exhibits over the past several decades was inspiring to me. Immersive exhibits depart from the traditional, “gallery” model of viewing animals by placing heavy focus on the idea of bringing the human into the animals’ environment. This means having the people on-level with the animal, minimal barriers between them at that level, and an exhibit that resembles the animals’ natural environment as much as possible. It is thought that this style, as opposed to, for example, a design where the animal is in a concrete pit for the humans to literally look down on, would promote respect in addition to providing better living conditions for the animals. While exhibit design is a very interesting and relevant subject, both my internship mentor and my school’s culture helped to shift me in a different direction. Eventually, I came to see education itself in a whole new light.
The High Tech High system is a hotbed of intellectual thought on the topic of education, and being immersed in this environment on a daily basis provided me with a culture in which to develop my own views on education. Every one of my teachers has a personal educational philosophy that guides their teaching style, and they are very willing to discuss it. We have tour groups from all over the world who come to discuss and learn. In this atmosphere where education is treated as a both practical matter with which to experiment and a philosophical matter to discuss and debate, it is very easy to begin to see the power of education in the world.
Another critically helpful piece of my school’s structure was the junior internship. For the month of January, I was able to work full-time with my mentor: Dr. Chia Tan, a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Dr. Tan studies a species of monkey whose last refuge is a reserve in southern China. She started the Little Green Guards (LGG) conservation education project, an initiative geared towards primary school children. Her description of her reasoning and her project’s goals were a primary factor in my gradual turn towards seeing education as the best tool for creating positive change.
During this month, Dr. Tan and I created an afterschool club for the Little Green Guards. I made a video that was the first of an ongoing series intended to teach English alongside fun facts and stories about animals, entitled “A is for Ape.” It was hard getting back to my somewhat rusty Mandarin but Dr. Tan, as a native speaker, was able to teach me a lot of specific words I needed to know.
When a delegation from the nature reserve in China came to visit, I was in the San Diego group that took them on a tour of the southwestern United States. This travel was accompanied by many long, in-depth conversations about the state and methods of conservation in China. I also got to present my video to the officials and to the teacher who visited me on-site. Not only did I learn quite a bit about both the subject matter and the “real adult world,” but I also felt an intense satisfaction at actually making an impact, at actually working to change the problems that I had encountered at the zoo in Shanghai. It was the ultimate project-based learning experience, dynamically including all six tenents of project-based learning in the context of my passion (adult-world connections, authenticity, assessment, academic rigor, applied learning, and active exploration).
The connection I made with my mentor grew stronger over the following summer, when she traveled to China and implemented the activities we had planned and designed for the club. Towards the end of the summer of 2013, once she had returned, we started planning for me to accompany her on her next trip.
I was able to arrange with my teachers and school administrators to take five weeks off from school during the fall of my senior year. Everyone at school that I talked to about this was extremely supportive, and I had all the resources I needed to manage the major change to my schedule. Furthermore, my Engineering class even helped me with my project. We made jigsaw puzzles that taught basic physic concepts, which I later used to teach the Little Green Guards.
The trip began in southern China. I hiked through the reserve where the monkeys live, conducted a club meeting with the puzzles, held meetings with many officials, scientists, and educators about our project, and planned for the future of conservation in the region. We even held an outreach event at a local teachers’ college to recruit volunteers, and I gave a speech in Mandarin to the assembled students and officials. Next, we went to Vietnam. We attended an international primatology conference, a meeting at the US embassy in Hanoi, and several networking sessions with other conservationists. I filmed primates at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center during the conference, and I saw wild monkeys for the first time. (Left is Delacour’s langurs). Later, we traveled to Taiwan to meet with the leaders of the Taipei Zoo about possible future collaboration, and we got to tour their institution and see their practices. In addition to being a valuable educational experience, it was also so exciting. This sudden immersion in the world of conservation was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
When I returned, I had to immediately return my focus to school and college applications. But I started thinking about everything in terms of this project, and I also started to see my school as a tool for real-world change in and of itself. The connection between my Engineering class and the Little Green Guards really opened my eyes to the potential the High Tech High model of education has for making such strong connections between the students’ passions and the content of the curriculum. Even though I am now about to graduate, I definitely intend to keep close contact with my school. In addition to seeing high schools as educational institutions, I hope that more of the outside “real world” starts to see high schools as a place where valuable, “real world” work can be done.
For example, in senior year I started on a project created by my Calculus teacher, Will Haase. He intends to help students pursue their passions through the Inquiry Project, where students essentially follow the pattern that I went through on my own, but with class time and teacher help. The students find something—a topic, a problem, a field—that interests them. They first research, then speak to professionals, and finally design a course of action to contribute to the field or solution. This project’s main problem is the time frame in which it takes place. It’s hard to tell students, “Okay, you have a two weeks to discover your passion, GO!” Some students know what they want to do right away, but most do not.
In reflecting on this project, and on my own independent study, I have come to see how valuable it has been for me to have all of this time to develop not only my independent study’s content, but also my own thoughts and opinions. I started this in sophomore year, and now as a senior, I am in the middle of something incredible. I have gained confidence from my successes and from the support of my community here, and I am much more capable in a variety of areas than I would be otherwise. At first, approaching all of those highly educated, extremely successful professionals was hard. I didn’t want to bother anyone, but I was welcomed time and again. Attempting to balance my schedule was also a daunting task, especially this last year, but it was well worth the effort. The fact that my school was so welcoming and accepting and supportive of my ideas and aspirations helped me to fully realize what I can do. I had time to edit and revise my work and my views, and I had time to evolve in my thinking. Looking back, I can see that the time I had allowed me to explore tangents and progress all the way from architecture to education.
The Inquiry Project in Calculus is wonderful, and if High Tech High can start earlier with supporting a longer version of such a project, I think the end result will be much more whole and more fully formed. High Tech High generally does a good job of preparing students for life after high school, and there is so much more potential there for connecting students to the outside world in a way that would deeply motivate them. For example, I used the internship opportunity to delve deeper into my project, while many of my classmates wound up doing something that they, in the end, did not want to pursue any further. While learning what you don’t like can certainly be valuable, junior internship is much more fun, interesting, and valuable in the long term when you can go after what you are passionate about. I also used the jigsaw puzzle project in Engineering to add to my lessons in China. I think that there are so many more opportunities for High Tech High education to be more personally inspiring to the students. There are also so many opportunities for students to work with each other, playing off each other’s strengths, to help each other’s projects across classes and grade levels to create content that does real good. For example, a student focused on music in their Inquiry Project could work to design a theme song for my educational videos, or I could use my Mandarin skills to translate another students’ work to make it accessible to more people.
I envision future schools where students’ education is driven by their passions, where a student’s curiosity rather than a curriculum is driving the content, and where students collaborate not just on the projects that the teachers design, but on their own projects as well. I think the end result would be graduating classes where the students are more confident and know themselves much better. I hope that my successes can act as an example for what high school students can do when a school facilitates a student’s individual interests and trajectories.
To learn more about Cameron’s experiences visit: http://chinazoos.blogspot.com