Brittany Boyd grew up avidly watching Animal Planet and episodes of “The Crocodile Hunter.”
Since then, Boyd, 17, has known she wanted a career involving animal life.
Now, Boyd joins other students studying with the Papillion-La Vista School District at the Zoo Academy.
Boyd and 45 other students recently competed in the 29th annual Metropolitan Science and Engineering Fair at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.
Boyd placed first in the fair’s senior division with a presentation on jellyfish reproduction.
Students in the Zoo Academy spend the majority of the year preparing for the contest, said Zoo Academy teacher Pat Purkhiser.
Preparation includes learning the zoo and learning to research. Students then build displays on the topic of their choice using the scientific method.
Purkhiser encourages students to select topics they’re interested in.
“If they enjoy it, they’ll put more effort into it,” he said.
Boyd, a senior at Papillion-La Vista High School, selected her topic because she didn’t know a lot about the species.
“There’s benefits for me and for them because there’s little information on captive reproduction,” she said.
Working together, Brett Homme and Jordyn Walker picked a topic on the effects of enriching reptile environments. Homme wanted a topic that was different from his presentation last year on rabbits. Homme and Walker placed third overall in the competition.
Students presented their research before 80 judges at the competition.
A total of 203 projects by 245 students were entered into the fair. Forty-six Papillion-La Vista students competed in the event, with 26 presentations winning awards.
Students who placed in the top five of each division qualified for the Nebraska Junior Academy of Sciences at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln on April 21.
Students in the zoo academy can choose to take all of their core classes at the Henry Doorly Zoo or they can split their time between one of the district’s two high schools and the zoo.
“It’s an extension of high school,” Purkhiser said. “We want them to have the high school experience but also have this opportunity.”
While traditional high schools are great for socializing and molding students, Purkhiser said the zoo academy gives students hands-on career experience.
“It’s real world, growing up, real life experience,” he said.
Presentations for the annual Metropolitan Science and Engineering Fair are a major part of the Zoo Academy. Students in the academy also spend time working with keepers in animal exhibits.
“Shadowing, getting that experience and making connections with keepers — we’re doing things other kids don’t get to do,” Boyd said.
Boyd is focused on marine biology. Her studies don’t just include fish and sharks, they also include corals and jellyfish.
Over the summer, Boyd had a chance to get up close and personal with her favorite animal — whale sharks. Boyd participated in the zoo’s summer experience program. While not part of the academy, she found out about the program through it. In addition to seeing whale sharks, she also did scuba diving and research on the reef.
Homme, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South High School, wants to be a veterinarian for small, companion animals.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve had a love for animals,” he said.
Animals at the zoo are typically more exotic than the ones he would like to work with in his career, but Homme said it’s good experience to know how to care for the zoo’s animals.
“I gain knowledge and experience to help in the future,” he said.
Homme spends time shadowing at Fontenelle Forest and in the zoo’s Wild Kingdom Pavilion. He works with chinchillas, porcupines, rabbits and sometimes the African penguins.
Students often learn whether a career in animal science is for them through the academy. From the start, students are asked to get involved with animals, from cleaning out cricket bins in the jungle to holding tarantulas in the classroom.
But the zoo also shows them other career opportunities.
While some students have gone on to study animal science, others have gone on to study medicine, psychology and horticulture. Others have joined the military.
“It helps figure out where they want to go,” Purkhiser said. “The zoo is like its own city.”