Gawking at elephants as they graze grasslands and witnessing a newborn gorilla snuggle its mom is a rare treat for some, but for two Ralston High School students, it’s an everyday experience.

On school days, junior Grace Belter and senior Brooklyn Smith report to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to learn about conservation and animal science as part of the district’s Zoo Academy.

The two spend the first half of their day at the zoo and in the afternoon return to Ralston High School for regular classes.

Every year, two RHS students have the opportunity to attend classes at the zoo. The selected students go through an application process and interview with zoo staff.

Smith said she decided to apply for the program because she wanted to see more options that are in the scientific career field.

“I have a certain love for science and the science I like is forensics, and I wanted to see what other kinds were out there,” Smith said.

With an interest in wildlife, Belter said she felt the Zoo Academy would give her the experience she needed in conservation.

“I want to be a park ranger when I grow up, so this seemed like the best option to see if this is what I really want to be and it is what I want to do,” Belter said.

Belter, for her introduction to research class, is working on a project to prevent further disappearance of Nebraska nature, specifically the Salt Creek beetle, river otters and prairie chickens.

She is also studying which birds live in the state.

As students progress in the two-year program, they develop community research projects.

The goal of the research projects is to make an impact on the local environment. Students choose topics and based on their project, present it to different groups.

For example, if students want to persuade a school to not host a balloon release, they will present their project to the school board.

Elizabeth Mulkerrin, vice president of education at the zoo, said she enjoys watching students like Belter thrive in the program.

“Having kids who are passionate and engaged is amazing because people listen to what they are saying and it seems like they can make a bigger influence than what us adults can do,” Mulkerrin said.

The zoo, Mulkerrin said, takes educating students seriously and gives them a variety of opportunities to learn.

The zoo accepts 120 students from districts across the metro into the academy, and each one gets to shadow zoo workers for hands-on experience, as well as zoo veterinarians at clinics.

Through shadowing, students get to study animal behavior, help get animals into different exhibits and assist in developing animal activities for enrichment.

They also get to see births and surgeries.

“The zoo has really invested a lot in the education here,” Mulkerrin said.

“Helping our children to grow into responsible adults and make responsible decisions about environmental issues is so important.”

Smith, who chose the animal science course path, is currently in the shadowing phase of the program.

So far, her favorite experience was watching a veterinarian amputate a lemur’s finger.

“I stand right by the vet and I watch every single thing that happens. They walk us through it and they tell us what they are doing next so we know what procedures they are doing,” Smith said.

Because of this program, Smith said she is considering going to veterinary school after college, especially since she’s had the chance to see veterinarians in action.

“When we get into vet school or wherever we are going, we know certain procedures.

“It kind of gives us the upper hand,” she said.

Josh Wilken, district career education coordinator for Ralston Public Schools, said he recommends students apply for this program because it is an incredible experience.

“This allows those students who are interested in that line of work and careers to be able to pursue this with such a powerful entity such as the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo,” Wilken said.

“It is really that next level for students who want to go into any branch of animal science or research.”

In her first year, Belter said she has learned a lot about wildlife and conservation, as well as some interesting facts.

“I know so many random fun facts about the zoo, like bananas are called fingers,” she said.

“You learn a lot, but the fun facts and just the random things just really stick with you.”

Belter said she appreciates that zoo lessons don’t always come from a textbook.

“Yeah, you learn about biology and stuff, but the way you learn here is fun because you get to witness it,” she said.

“They make learning fun. It’s not just needed to know it for a test, it’s stuff that can be used in everyday life.”

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