class act Best practices in action

class act
Best practices in action
CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo
class act
Best practices in action
CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo
Zoo Crew: Engineers Gone Wild!
A one-of-a-kind civil engineering program in El Monte Union High School District’s Mountain View High School provides students opportunities to design and engineer products, habitats and structures that benefit wildlife — and occasionally even meet the beneficiaries of their hard work.

Zoo Crew: Engineers Gone Wild! — the district’s Golden Bell Award-winning program — makes engineering career technical education more attractive to low-income, female and other student groups that are often reluctant to participate in high-level science, technology, engineering and math coursework.

Martha Schirn, the El Monte Union HSD grant writer responsible for securing the program’s funding, said it was specifically designed to draw in STEM-averse students.

“Engineering is not typically thought of as a helping profession. Zoo Crew’s unique focus — protecting animals — makes ‘hard science’ CTE especially appealing to young women,” Schirn said. “Concentration on visual and hands-on learning continuously reinforces application to wildlife and makes curriculum accessible and appealing, especially to English learners and other students who struggle with academic language. [And] mastery learning helps eradicate historically underrepresented students’ fear of failure in rigorous science coursework. Students can work for the grades they want, without fear of jeopardizing their GPAs and college entrance and scholarship possibilities.”

Launched in 2018, the program has already had demonstrable improvements on student outcomes. Female enrollment in Mountain View High CTE pathways rose from 16 percent in 2016 to 46 percent in 2021; and the number of classes resulting in “D” or “F” grades fell from 43 percent in 2016 to 10 percent in 2020.

lady handling zoo animal
students working on project
“Mastery learning helps eradicate historically underrepresented students’ fear of failure in rigorous science coursework.”
— Martha Schirn, grant writer, El Monte Union HSD
Zoo Crew incorporates engineering and architectural design to address topics such as environmental sustainability and preserving the natural areas surrounding developing cities. Students have engaged in project-based learning that resulted in real-world projects, including wildlife crossing structures, fabricated fish popsicle molds for seals, feral dog shelters and animal-enrichment devices.

“All Zoo Crew work-based learning is service learning, and results in real-world products that students donate to local animal rescues and wildlife sanctuaries,” Schirn said.

Themed curriculum relates large parts of biology, physiology, psychology, physics and engineering to each other, while integrating problem solving, conceptual understanding and recursive learning, which allows students to gain a more cohesive understanding of science as they use experiential learning to act for the good of wildlife and humanity, she continued.

Zoo Crew assignments are given humorous names such as “Build a Villa for a Chinchilla” and “Panda-monium: Simple Machines in a Panda Playground,” both to pique student interest and help them overcome the anxiety of an engineering course. Students are encouraged to approach tools and concepts like Autodesk Inventor and 3-D printers with confidence so that they can become proficient at 2-D and 3-D computer-aided design and animation.

Students also listen to guest speakers, take field trips to the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, and observe animals in the classroom. For instance, on the first day of the program, students were introduced to a serval — a rare, long-legged, long-eared wildcat found mostly in the African Savanna. Wildlife Learning Center representatives explained the characteristics and behaviors of the exotic animal, providing students an example of the types of creatures they could help through their coursework as they channel their creativity, critical-thinking and decision-making skills throughout the duration of the course.

The California Department of Education has archived Zoo Crew CTE materials – including course outlines, lesson plans and more – on its CTE website. The National Wildlife Federation supports Zoo Crew with grant money and has expressed interest in replicating the Mountain View pathway nationwide. Schirn said discussions on how to replicate the course are currently underway.

— Alisha Kirby