Maths matters at the zoo

Issue: Volume 95, Number 16

Posted: 5 September 2016
Reference #: 1H9d4A

From weighing rhinos to plotting panda pregnancies, statistics and data form an important element of zoo management. Teachers from local secondary schools have been harnessing their students’ curiosity about animals to teach mathematical concepts at Hamilton Zoo.

Field trips outside the classroom are not commonplace when it comes to learning maths.

But two secondary school classes recently broke free from whiteboards and desks in favour of meerkats and monkeys.

Hamilton Zoo is a Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC) provider for the Ministry of Education, and its lead educator Ken Millwood says they welcome around 8,000 students each year.

“The fourth term is our busiest, because everyone likes to come to the zoo when it’s sunny,” he laughs.

Authentic contexts

Ken says a visit to Hamilton Zoo can enrich student learning in a variety of ways.

“The majority of school groups who come and visit us are looking for science and social science learning opportunities, but earlier this year we had some schools coming to learn about statistics and data."

“Because a lot of maths is usually done in the classroom, it’s great for teachers to be able to come and do a field trip focused on the practical use of statistics,” he says.

“The zoo environment can provide interesting and authentic learning opportunities, especially in science and maths."

“The best data we have to show students is that related to the varying weights of our zoo animals."

“For example, with one class we were looking at the data we’ve collected on our resident red panda."

“We’ve been collecting data about panda pregnancy and birth over a number of years, and we plot this information on graphs. I showed the students these graphs, and we talked about other factors that might affect animal weight such as their diet and overall health.”

The zoo also collects a wide range of other data, such as visitor numbers and surveys, quantity of waste and food consumption.

Visitors to the zoo can combine the experience with stargazing at the nearby Hamilton Observatory, and exploring New Zealand’s largest inland restoration project at Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park which is situated directly opposite.

Ken says the observatory presents another fantastic learning opportunity.

“When you start looking at the numbers and data about space and stars, it’s mind-blowing,” he says.

There is of course scope for other year levels and maths focus to study things at the zoo.

“We’re open to any kind of learning and we welcome all teachers and students.”

Mathematics in the workforce

Fairfield College teacher Andrea McKenzie took her year 9 maths class to visit Hamilton Zoo in June of this year, as part of a number of LEOTC excursions planned.

“I wanted to show my students a good example of ‘community-based maths’ – by that I mean the numbers we study in class being used in a ‘real-world’ context."

“The zoo gave us just that – many examples of everyday maths being used in an authentic way."

“We were looking at proper mathematics – especially statistical investigations, and how these can be used in a real setting. The students learned about perimeter, measurement and area and the application of these in the designing and construction of animal enclosures."

“As well as studying the different enclosures at the zoo, and thinking about what they need to be doing depending on the animal they are enclosing, we looked at data recorded about the animal’s food intake and weight over time."

“Looking at the data, I encouraged the students to think about the purpose of recording and tracking statistical information, making predictions and analysing results."

“Plus, there was of course the bonus of visiting the wonderful animals!”

Andrea says that some of her students hadn’t visited a zoo before, for various reasons such as geographical and family circumstances.

Hamilton Zoo let Fairfield College know about potential funding they could apply for, in the form of the Warehouse Zoofari initiative, which offers transport and admission costs for student groups from decile 1–3 schools within the Waikato and Coromandel regions.

“I think doing a field trip like this really helps to make maths practical and real, and another important part of it is that they get to talk to adults about their work."

“The zoo presents a situation where there are grown-ups using maths every day to do practical, grown-up jobs. It’s much more interesting for my students than sitting in the classroom learning equations."

“One of my students came up to me at the trip and said ‘I never realised maths was so important.’ And that was a wonderful thing to hear him say!”

Making data meaningful

Papamoa College maths teacher Katy Thorne says she and a colleague were looking for a different context in which to present statistical data to their students, in a meaningful way.

“We wanted to go somewhere and see data being collected and used in an authentic setting."

“Ken at Hamilton Zoo had such an enthusiastic response, and together with the observatory on site – it seemed like a great place to begin our study,” she says.

The group combined their zoo trip with an overnight stay at the observatory next door, which in itself provided rich learning opportunities.

Katy says the students woke up at 5am to see a rare alignment of the planets – and promptly fell asleep again.

“5am is rather early, especially for teenagers – and to be fair, we teachers went straight back to sleep too.”

Each of the Papamoa students was given the opportunity to choose a particular set of zoo data to analyse and investigate.

Data about the zoo’s red panda was the focus for most of them.

“The zoo trip was all about asking the questions, such as, ‘Where can we get data from? What does it show? And what can it be used for?’,” says Katy.

“The project has sparked further learning for our students – largely about where they can go to get different sets of data – one is studying information gathered about penguins, for example.”

She says the same unit was taught at Papamoa College in 2015, but it didn’t result in the same level of student interest and curiosity.

“We did this statistics unit last year, but we didn’t have the same level of engagement at all. I think there was something special about actually being there, at the zoo.”

It’s important, says Katy, that students are encouraged to have authentic learning experiences wherever possible.

“We do run the risk of statistics classwork being quite a dry subject, when actually it’s underpinning and at the centre of nearly everything we do. Data informs everything we take for granted."

“It’s always great to take kids out of the classroom, and point out maths being used in the world, especially in settings where they may not otherwise recognise it as maths,” she says.

An inherently practical subject

Local mathematics educator Dr Nicola Petty was invited by Katy Thorne to join the excursion.

She gave the Papamoa College students a short talk on the importance of statistics in terms of society and citizenship.

“Statistics is an inherently practical subject. All statistical analysis has a real world context, and every statistical analysis is different for that reason. If students are only exposed to well-behaved, clean data like the type they usually get in textbooks, they miss out on part of the adventure of statistical analysis,” she says.

Nicola found the talks at both the observatory and zoo to be fascinating and pitched at the right level for the class.

“It was clear that there are large amounts of data collected all the time in various scientific endeavours, and that data analysis and statistics is needed to make sense of it."

“I enjoyed seeing behind the scenes where the food is prepared for the different animals, and could see enormous potential for statistics and operations research there.”

Nicola is also known as ‘Dr Nic’ and she writes an informative blog called Learn and Teach Mathematics and Statistics(external link) 

You can find all LEOTC providers by region by the TKI website(external link)

BY Melissa Wastney
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:29 pm, 5 September 2016

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts