When instructor Kathe O'Donnelly brought the rainbow-billed toucan out of its cage, the sixth-graders who were crowded into the library of Vena Avenue School in Pacoima became silent.
"Tia is a member of an endangered species," said O'Donnelly, an employee of Wildlife on Wheels, a nonprofit educational corporation that tries to enhance science programs by taking animals into classrooms.
"She lives in the rain forests of South America," O'Donnelly continued. "But because rain forests are being destroyed by people who are cutting down the trees for lumber, toucans like Tia are losing their homes. What is it called when an animal joins the endangered species list because its home is destroyed?"
"Habitat destruction," answered a student who is a member of Vena's magnet program for gifted and high-achieving students.
Liven Up Lectures
Last year, teachers in Vena's magnet program wanted to liven up science lectures. So they used about $1,100 of the special funding the school receives for the magnet curriculum to bring Wildlife on Wheels' mobile zoo to the school.
For 10 weeks, students in the first through sixth grades meet with Wildlife on Wheels owner Millicent Wood and O'Donnelly in special science sessions that feature live snakes, birds, opossums, raccoons and other animals.
"Science can be pretty boring, especially for first- and second-graders, when all it is is the teacher talking," said Susan Schwab, Vena's magnet coordinator. "Children need to be involved. They learn better that way."
Added Wood: "Books and filmstrips are fine. But when you work with a three-dimensional object, well, it just seems to be more intellectually stimulating."
Last year, the magnet students learned about biological classification of animals based on a systematic division of animals by internal and external attributes.
"You can learn a lot about the differences in birds, for example, by looking at their beaks, seeing the differences in their body structure and checking to see how their feet are constructed," Wood explained. "This all really comes alive when the children have live animals to compare."
This year the students are studying endangered animals and the reasons those animals have become endangered.
When the Vena magnet sixth-graders met with Wood and O'Donnelly recently, the students came up with the names of several animals on endangered species lists, including the duckbill platypus, giant panda, California condor and gorilla.
O'Donnelly added a few others and then brought out the pelts and shells of some of the endangered animals. The students touched the pelt of a margay, a Central American cat, and a Mexican ocelot, another large cat that has been hunted almost out of existence.
There was also a shell from a green sea turtle and a cigar box made from the skin of a endangered turtle.
Tia the Star
There were many oohs and ahs over the skins and shells, but the real star of the lesson was Tia the toucan, the only live animal brought to the class.
As O'Donnelly paraded the 9-month-old toucan around the room, the students peppered the teachers with questions.
"What kind of sound does a toucan make?" one student asked. "Is the beak delicate?" another queried. "When the bird hatches, are their beaks hard or soft?" another asked.
"Being close to live animals is an education in itself for the students," Wood said. "Many of them have never touched a chick or a rabbit. The lack of contact with animals cuts across socioeconomic lines. I've found that it is more a city-versus-country situation. City kids just don't come into contact with animals."
The wildlife program is the type of curriculum enhancement that the state Board of Education would like to see added to all science courses. In fact, the board is revising the goals and requirements of the state's science curriculum.
"We want to strengthen the model curriculum that all schools must follow to reflect scientific advancements and discoveries and to make sure that every student has a strong foundation in the sciences," said Susie Lang, a state board spokeswoman.
Making Science Accessible
"Our first move was to revise and strengthen the curriculum for senior high schools," she said. "But as we moved forward with that, we realized that we would have to strengthen the requirements at the elementary and junior high levels, too, if those students were to be ready for the tougher senior high curriculum."
Making science a more accessible subject was one of the reasons Wood started Wildlife on Wheels. Wood came up with the idea of a company that would take animals into the classroom when she was in graduate school at the University of California, Davis.
"My master's thesis was on a hypothetical business like this one," she said, describing Wildlife on Wheels. "I did a marketing survey to see if there would be a demand. One of the things I discovered was that the amount of science being taught at the elementary level was less than 20 minutes a week in some cases."