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Stories of Impact

Learning Initiatives

University Prep and Detroit Zoo Partnership Fosters Interest in Zoology and STEM Careers

“There’s an incredible lack of diversity in STEM-related careers in zoos and aquariums, specifically in animal care. This program helps to break that cycle and create opportunity for traditionally underrepresented students.”

– Claire Lannoye-Hall, Director of Education, Detroit Zoological Society

Detroit, MI (January 2023)Studies show that when it comes to college studies and careers in zoology, African Americans are enormously underrepresented. In fact, less than three percent of all zoology degrees are awarded to African American students. University Prep Schools, which has a 98 percent African American student population, wanted to change that statistic, and cultivate a strong pipeline from its science classrooms to university zoological studies and careers.

University Prep worked hand-in-hand with the Detroit Zoological Society and the Belle Isle Aquarium to create a dynamic Zoology and Aquarium Science curriculum that sets students up for success in college and in life. The four-year program is structured much like a college degree and works to deepen students’ connections with the natural sciences and animal welfare.

With support from a Walters Family Foundation grant, the program was launched in the 2019-2020 school year, and has now influenced the hopes, dreams, and career aspirations of three cohorts of students.

One of the most unique aspects of the program involved immersing students in hands-on experiences where they learned side-by-side with mentors in the field. Students performed experiments with aquatic scientists, marine biologists, reptile specialists and zoologists. They conducted research at the Detroit Zoo, Belle Isle Aquarium, Sutton’s Bay Inland Seas Association and even on a weekend trip to the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida.

University Prep Math and Science High School Students learn hands-on in partnership with the Detroit Zoo.Download a high-resolution version of this photo.

“One day in the field is worth a month in the classroom,” says Pam Sparks, Zoology Teacher, University Prep. “Students collected data, applied the scientific process, and observed habitats multiple times over multiple seasons. Having these repeated opportunities gave students the experience of real authentic field work.”

Students were also able to partake in one-of-a-kind summer employment and internships at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Aquarium. They began to see potential career pathways that they might not have otherwise. Since the completion of the program, one student is pursuing forestry at Michigan State University. Another is part of an immersive zoology internship that entails monthly Saturday visits to the Zoo.

“We wanted to provide the kind of experience where young people began to feel like they belong in STEM careers,” says John Lockhart, Director of Curriculum & Instruction, University Prep Schools. “For students to see that these are jobs people do in their own community, and that they can apply the principles of caring for the natural world in their own neighborhood, that’s a success.”


Experiential learning immerses students in the field.Download a high-resolution version of this photo.