Glenwood resident recognized for work as zoo educator

-A A +A
By Joe Foreman, Editor

OMAHA - Elizabeth Mulkerrin isn’t kidding if she tells you her workplace is a zoo.


The Glenwood resident is the director of education for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium - a multi-faceted position the former high school science teacher has embraced since joining the zoo staff in 2000 at the invitation of former zoo director Dr. Lee Simmons.

“Education is an important part of our mission here at the zoo,” Mulkerrin said. “My job really is a little bit of everything.”

The zoo’s commitment to education is long-standing and evident by the number of programs, courses, camps and resources the zoo offers to patrons, school children and educators. The programs include children’s “Ed-Venture” classes and day camps, school and community outreach, curriculum and professional development for teachers, live virtual classroom lectures shared with schools nation wide and unique eco-adventure travel opportunities during the summer. This year, up to 6,000 children will take part in camps at the zoo and a select group of participants will travel to Cozumel for an ocean and aquamarine data-gathering eco-adventure camp.

The offerings all contribute to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium being celebrated and recognized annually as one of the top zoos in the world, but there is another major component of the educational program that might be the zoo’s best-kept secret. Not widely known is that around 200 children go to school at the zoo on a regular basis. That’s 40 preschoolers, a class of 25 kindergartners, 40 middle school students and around 100 high school juniors and seniors.

“It’s going to school with a zoo twist,” Mulkerrin said. “It’s a different way of learning – a lot more applicative (learning).”

The Little Lions Preschool has two half-day preschool classes for children ages 3 and 4 and one full-day class for children ages 4 and 5. Mulkerrin said the animals and the landscape at the zoo create a natural learning environment for early childhood education.

The all-day kindergarten class, a cooperative effort with Omaha Public Schools, is made up exclusively of students from nearby Bancroft Elementary. The kindergartners take daily “walkabouts” throughout the school year to designated areas of the zoo where the animals and surroundings are integrated into their reading, writing and math curriculums.

“It’s explorative and engaged learning,” Mulkerrin said. “If they’re learning the letter G, they might go out and find all the animals that start with the letter G – giraffe and gorilla, for example - and then record their observations.”

The zoo’s 25-student kindergarten class has becomeso popular that a lottery system has been implemented to determine which Brancroft students are selected.

The middle schoolers, primarily from King Science Magnet School in north Omaha, come to the zoo every other day.

The program for high school students from the Omaha and Papillion-LaVista school districts is called Zoo Academy. Academy students spend their entire school day at the zoo, completing required science, math, English and social studies classes, taught by teachers from both districts. The Zoo Academy is geared toward students who enjoy working with animals, want to learn more about the environment or have a strong interest in science or doing research.

Student Lexie Busch described her schooling at Zoo Academy as “an awesome way to learn” and classmate Kenzie McIntyre said she’s considering becoming a science teacher as a result of her Zoo Academy courses.

Mulkerrin said the opportunity to get up close and personal with animals and to participate in hands-on learning behind the scenes of many of the zoo exhibits makes for a unique and meaningful learning experience for students at each grade level.  

“It’s pretty amazing all the things students are doing here,” Mulkerrin said. “What we’re doing is pretty unique and we do get calls from time to time from other zoos wanting to know more about our programs.”

Mulkerrin and her fellow educators are looking forward to this summer’s opening of the zoo’s new Adventure Trails Center and Education Building, currently under construction north of the Desert Dome on the zoo’s western edge. The addition will be equipped with special classrooms linked to active hands-on laboratories, small mammal exhibits, adventure play areas, a dedicated Children’s Zone with rides, exhibits and splash zones. The area will include a 350-student kindergarten and high school. Until now, the preschool, kindergarten, middle school and high school classrooms were scattered in various buildings throughout the zoo.

There are other aspects to Mulkerrin’s job as director of education, including development of life-skills opportunities for children with learning disabilities, a program the Glenwood Community School District participates in.

With the opening of the new education center and the capacity to serve additional students, Mulkerrin is expecting participation in zoo programs to keep growing.

“The collaborative space in the new building will allow us to expand our educational programs and opportunities,” she said. “It’s going to be a great addition for the zoo and the community.”

The success of the educational programs at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium helped earn Mulkerrin national recognition this spring from the National Science Teacher Association (NSTA). In April, she was awarded the organization’s Distinguished Informal Science Educator Award, given to a science educator who inspires student achievement with teaching in a non-traditional classroom setting. Nationally, Mulkerrin has been a promoter of science education by serving in leadership positions with NSTA and National Science Education Leadership Association, where she is the retiring president. She’s also worked with local school districts, universities and informal science organizations to develop and enhance Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs.

Mulkerrin has a master of science degree in educational administration and doctor of education degree in educational administration and supervision from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a bachelor of science degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She taught biology for six years at Burke High School in Omaha prior to taking her position at the zoo.