The History of WZAM

Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter (WZAM) is a long-term commitment (almost 20 years!) to understanding how zoos and aquariums contribute to American society. This initiative explores the relationship the public perceives between Z/As, learning, and conservation. WZAM3, the third wave of investment from the National Science Foundation, builds on the previous work of WZAM1 and WZAM2, while focusing specifically on the role that Z/As play in STEM learning.

The first wave of the project, WZAM1, began in 2001 and uncovered how Z/As encourage conservation learning with visitors. Led by the Philadelphia Zoo and the Institute for Learning Innovation, the project developed standard ways of measuring attitudes and knowledge about conservation.

WZAM1 taught us that:

  1. Most visitors arrive at Z/As with more commitment to conservation and knowledge on environmental protection than previously thought.
  2. Visits to Z/As prompt visitors to think about their role in conservation.
  3. Visitors believe Z/As play an important role in conservation and animal care.
  4. The motivation for the visit — like facilitating learning for others, finding something novel, or pursuing a personal hobby interest — will directly impact the type and quality of learning.

The second wave, WZAM2, began in 2009 and featured the Wildlife Conservation Society leading research on behalf of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). It investigated how visitors thought about the way the role of Z/As influences the legitimacy or set expectations for learning outcomes. The four-year research project described how different sectors of the public value Z/As in their communities and their lives. This study highlighted the public’s value of Z/As as resources for information on animal endangerment and conservation. Moreover, it showed how the public looks to these institutions to teach children about the natural world, respect for living creatures, and serve as an educational resource for children in the community.

WZAM2 also created the first series of training seminars for staff at Z/As, reflecting the learning from both waves of research. That training is now part of the core education programs offered by the AZA, and has reached professionals at more than 75% of the zoo and aquariums that are members of AZA.

In the years since the beginning of WZAM, the need for understanding the potential for Z/As to communicate conservation concerns has increased rapidly. With the two previous waves as a foundation, the third wave (WZAM3) builds off of these previous research initiatives to study how the general public perceives and trusts zoos and aquariums in the context of other informal science education institutions (like museums, parks, libraries, etc.). We hope this work will expand and strengthen how Z/As do their work.

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