Many issues in wildlife conservation are ideal for educating the public about the environment and the role that science can play in preserving nature. For example, most people in western nations love elephants. Learning that poachers are now annihilating these majestic animals across most of Africa, and that scientific advancements in fields such as genetics, endocrinology and statistics are helping to save them, makes people think about the harmful impacts of buying animal products such as ivory, as well as appreciate that science may be more exciting than they thought. Learning that polar bears are drowning because melting ice flows require them to swim longer distances to reach solid ground, encourages people to think about global warming and what can be done to stop it. Such “real-life stories” increase public awareness of environmental issues, in general, as well as interests in the sciences among our young people. In essence, wildlife conservation can serve as a vehicle to make science and math more exciting and compelling for young students.
The Center draws upon public appeal for its projects to educate the community at large in conservation biology and the sciences. We do this through television, radio, newspaper and magazine interviews, public lectures and teacher’s packets. We also create opportunities for K-12 science teachers and students to participate in summer field and laboratory programs.
When in the field, our dogs serve as excellent ambassadors for the environment. People are drawn to our dogs and marvel at what they can do for science. We take our dogs into communities surrounding the conservation areas where we are working, demonstrate how the dogs work and use this opportunity to educate the public about the environmental issues we are addressing. This approach has been especially successful in first nation communities given the importance of wildlife in their culture. They have great appreciation for a program that uses dogs to discover so much about wildlife without disturbing them in any way.
One of our outreach initiatives developed unique ways to inform K-12 students about national and international conservation issues, as well as interest high school students in molecular biology. We worked with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer and Research Center, and the Howard Hughes Program at the University of Washington to create a teacher’s packet that describes the conservation problems surrounding poaching and trade in African elephant ivory. The packet highlights the molecular techniques our Center is using to address this problem, followed by laboratory instruction in DNA extraction and analyses. This packet has been used with great success in high schools throughout Washington. Students became intrigued by these conservation problems and eager to learn the molecular techniques that can be employed to address them. This effort was hailed in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin (June 2002, p. 33) for its value in promoting student interest in the fields of conservation and molecular biology, even among student who previously care little about science.
We encourage students and volunteers of all ages to come and work in our lab as well as in our Canine Detection Program. The canine program has great public appeal because it rescues shelter dogs with low probability of adoption. People get to see, first hand, the incredible detection abilities of these dogs and the overall effectiveness of these novel methods for monitoring wildlife. This engenders a broader appreciation of conservation issues and their scientific solutions. Our canine program also receives considerable media attention to further raise conservation issues in the public’s eyes.