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This School is a Zoo!

Featured Photo from This School is a Zoo!

Future veterinarians at Sanford Middle School are making house calls at the Central Florida Zoo

The pre-vet program at Sanford Middle School is not only teaching students about veterinary medicine, it’s giving them a real-life look at what it might be like to have a career in the field working with exotic animals. And there’s only one place in town to get that kind of hands-on experience: the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

Inside Courtney Friedman’s eighth-grade Pre-Vet 3 classroom, you might get a glance at some of our community’s future veterinarians. They spend their days working together in a lab-type setting, conducting animal behavior investigations, designing testable questions, and developing solutions to problems. And thanks to a partnership between Seminole County Public Schools and the Central Florida Zoo, these passionate middle-school students also get to expand their learning. Twice a month, students travel to the zoo for up-close and hands-on opportunities to study various animal-related professions, as well as exotic veterinary medicine.

Sanford Middle’s partnership with the zoo is an opportunity given to students in eighth grade who have successfully completed Pre-Vet components 1 and 2, which provide a foundation in zoology and veterinary medicine. Once these classes are completed, eighth-grade students may enroll in the final Pre-Vet 3 class, a full-year elective. The class includes the opportunity for additional enrichment at the zoo.  
Each lesson that Courtney teaches in class is reinforced when her students visit the zoo. Students listen to zookeeper talks and study animals up close, they observe animal habitats and participate in giraffe and rhinoceros encounters to collect data, they meet the zoo’s vet-tech staff, and they learn about exams and equipment. The zoo excursions are filled with unique experiences. The pre-vet students recently listened to the sound of a reptile’s heartbeat.

From the classroom to the zoo, Courtney says she watches her students’ engagement level increase tremendously. 

“They learn more because it is real life,” she says. “I can show them plenty of videos or engage them in several ways, but to see them in a natural environment is something that is an extremely unique experience. Students are in class five days a week, and this allows them to get out of their seats, move around, and work together on something that really motivates them.” 

The zoo visits are an added bonus for Courtney, who, prior to becoming a teacher, gained experience as an animal keeper at Ohio’s Columbus Zoo. She was also an intern at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland and an intern at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. She is thrilled at the opportunity to fuse her two passions and bring the educational benefits of the zoo to her students. 
Since the eighth-grade program partnership was initiated last year, the zoo’s education director, Stephanie Williams, has worked closely with Courtney to ensure the students receive a successful and educational experience with each visit. Stephanie agrees that the zoo trips make a lasting impact. 

“We are getting students outside in a different environment, and it’s real-world experience,” says Stephanie. “These kids have already acknowledged they are interested in this field. They were selected to be part of the program. To see it happen in real time and not on a video screen or a tablet is very valuable at their age. There’s nothing like it.”

Stephanie has been working at the zoo since 1999 and has served as its education director since 2010. Looking ahead, she hopes that the pre-vet students continue to visit and learn at the zoo on a consistent basis.  

“As these students move into high school, we want to continue to build our relationships with them and with our local high schools to continue real-life education that is happening here,” Stephanie says.

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