Just one example of these hands-on experiences are the trips that teacher candidates in Susan McWilliams’ early childhood education course take each semester to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Each week during the spring semester, students meet with either zoo experts or children at the zoo’s on-site preschool as part of their course experience. By learning about animals and their habitats from zoo personnel, UNO students learn the power of using observation and inquiry to promote language development and content learning. Students draw analogies between managing early childhood environments and animal habitats. When working with children at the zoo preschool, they write lesson plans and work one-on-one with the eager youngsters, teaching them about conservation, nature and the animal kingdom.
“Experiential learning is very powerful, we all learn by experience,” McWilliams said. “So when our students can learn here at the zoo, they can take that back into their classrooms.”
For the students, it’s a chance to gain invaluable experience at one of Omaha’s iconic locations and, for the educators at the zoo, it’s a chance to watch the preschoolers react to someone else’s approach to teaching.
“It’s an amazing experience, it’s so much fun to see them in action,” Sarah Goscha, an elementary education major, said. “We spend so much time on these projects, it’s so much fun to actually do them with preschoolers.
“We actually write out a lesson plan and get graded on our plan. We plan as if were regular teachers.”
“It’s really nice for (the preschoolers) to get different teachers,” Brian Priesman, one of the teachers at the zoo, said. “By this time of year they have spent all their time with the zoo staff, so to get other teachers with new perspectives and new ideas, its really nice for them.
“It’s really cool to see how somebody new is able to bring something out of a child that we haven’t seen.”
Students in the program also relish the opportunity to get out of the classroom for a little while. It’s a nice change of pace.
“It’s refreshing,” Danielle Jackley, another early education major, said. “It’s nice to not be on campus all the time. The change of pace in the environment is really nice.
“That’s (part of) why I really like the program at UNO, because we have so much teaching experience before we actually go into the field. I’m just used to teaching now.”
Priesman said he always takes note of the transformation the UNO students go through by the end of the semester. By that time, the UNO students realize they can work on all sorts of concepts with the preschoolers, despite their young age.
“It’s a blast!” he said. “To see people who haven’t been doing education for long, its nice to see people who are new to it, it keeps us fresh.”