NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) – A non-profit organization offers a new learning experience about the conservation efforts of primates to students at Vanderbilt University and Metro Nashville Public Schools.
The Ape Initiative bridges world-class research happening around the world with K-12 students by showing them real-world science. The research facility has been the only one in the world dedicated to the study and conservation of the species most closely related to humans – endangered bonobos.
News 2 spoke with Angela Eeds, Director of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, as well as, Sarah Huneycutt, Instructor for Day of Discovery Program at Nashville Zoo about the program.
Eeds said it has been a challenge to transition from in-person learning to remote learning. However, this effort is all part of a bigger collaborative for STEM education and outreach at Vanderbilt. They partner with local schools to provide opportunities to further education and have programs for elementary, middle and high school students.
“It’s all about having other people they can interact with. So, it’s not just listening. It’s back and forth conversation,” explained Eeds.
That’s where the Ape Initiative comes in. During the pandemic, educators searched for new ways to engage with students. The Director of The Ape Initiative, Jared P. Taglialatela, agreed to collaborate.
Students connected via video with researchers working with endangered animals and asked them questions.
“They are getting this really unique experience to see these animals – these endangered animals – that are only located in a few locations in captivity around the world. It’s been fun to see them engage and light up. And it’s been great because the Ape Initiative has provided opportunities, not only to learn about the animals and conservation, but also to use them as a motivator to get the kids excited about science in general,” explained Huneycutt.
Vanderbilt officials said it’s crucial to give students these opportunities and exposure to STEM, as they’ve seen the impact of how it can change the course of a student’s future career.
“It’s great to see what our students go off, and what they do after graduation. We learned one of our graduates from 2011 has earned his PHD in Oceanography and has come back to Vanderbilt and the Nashville area as a professional scientist. I got an email just the other day from a student, who while she was here on campus, helped build a solar oven with an engineering team, and that opened her eyes to public health. Now she is majoring in public health, and because of her experience here, she was able to get one of the few internship opportunities with her university this year,” explained Eeds.
Both Eeds and Huneycutt said they’re trying to incorporate these opportunities as much as possible for students. Students are doing everything from getting seminars to lectures from people who work at the initiative to designing their own studies. The Ape Initiative then collects the data for them, and they go through the entire research process.
“There’s one where they decided if the bonobos would pick bananas or pick grapes? Then they get to watch the trials unfold while the bonobo is presented with a grape and a banana. They get to code the data, analyze the data and graph the data. They compare it to their hypothesis, and draw a conclusion, and they use this to study the scientific method,” explained Huneycutt.
“Everyday, we are looking for more opportunities for our students that get them involved in our community and make a positive impact. We have some 12th graders working with the Tennessee Environmental Council to let people know they can build a pollinator garden or start a compost bin in their backyard. Even while we are living more apart from each other, we can do things that are beneficial for our community,” said Eeds.
Huneycutt said they’ve been able to reach students who are struggling during the pandemic too.
“We are able to incorporate some of the studies that have been done with the apes to talk to kids about processing emotion and think about the precursors to even be able to think of our own feelings. So, we have to have self-recognition, the ability of mind or perspective of another person, so we are able to utilize the apes to get the kids thinking more about self,” said Huneycutt.
You can learn more about the Ape Initiative by clicking here. They are providing all of these opportunities to Vanderbilt and Metro students at no cost.