UD alumna provides wildlife conservation education for Philadelphia Zoo
10:53 a.m., July 28, 2014--When Kristen Lewis-Waldron attended the University of Delaware as an undergraduate student, she had the opportunity to complete an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo. It turned out to be a perfect fit, and 18 years later Lewis-Waldron is still combining her love of animals and education at the zoo.
Now the director of conservation education and integration, Lewis-Waldron is responsible for integrating conservation messaging across all of the Philadelphia Zoo’s platforms. She works with all departments, from the marketing and development team to the social media unit, and directs messaging at the exhibits in the education area.
Success after adversity
One of the biggest parts of Lewis-Waldron’s role recently has been helping in the creation of KidZooU, a children’s zoo that provides an engaging experience for children and their families while promoting a lifetime of conservation action through hands-on learning activities.
“We’re trying to achieve a lot through the experience. It’s highly interactive and creates a year-round destination for kids,” said Lewis-Waldron. “It obviously allows for that up close and personal interaction which is so important and it’s a place where kids can practice how to care for animals, make the world a better place for animals, and practice conservation behavior.”
Lewis-Waldron, who graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said she is especially proud of the fact that KidZooU was created using a technique known as universal design.
“We designed the facility so that regardless of your age, your ability, your background, you can access KidZooU. We kept in mind things like not just physical accessibility -- which is certainly extremely important -- but we also thought about other things like cognitive and behavioral accessibility,” she said.
Every animal is identified in KidZooU using braille and American Sign Language, and with QR codes that are accessible in 14 different languages.
KidZooU also looked at how to reach children with autism, creating picture-oriented preplanning systems for the kids. “They can go on our website, look at a map of KidZooU and create a schedule for themselves. They can decide ‘I’m going to go see the goats first, then I’m going to go see the chickens and then I’m going to go see the mini-horses,’ and then bring that with them and find those same symbols on the universally designed graphics,” said Lewis-Waldron.
KidZooU was a multi-year effort and Lewis-Waldron said the Philadelphia Zoo was very fortunate to be able to partner with many helpful organizations in the special needs communities across the region.
Concerning her time at the Philadelphia Zoo, Lewis-Waldron said she has held many positions since starting as a nutrition intern. She spent her first internship studying the Micronesian kingfisher, a bird that is now extinct in the wild.
Working on the nutritional diet for the bird, she and the zoo’s full-time nutritionist published a 15-week study and created an artificial diet that has now been adapted and is still being used at different zoos across the country today.
While at UD, Lewis-Waldron took agriculture communications, public relations and journalism classes, and her second internship involved assisting the public relations team.
Once she graduated, Lewis-Waldron accepted a full-time position at the zoo working for the public relations team and helping to open the PECO Primate Reserve.
She served in that role for two years before realizing how much she missed interacting with animals and children, and that her real passion was in education. “I started volunteering on my weekends in the education department for the zoo and shifted over to that in the year 2000, and I’ve been in education ever since,” said Lewis-Waldron.
The ability to educate children about the need for animal conservation is one of her favorite parts of the job.
“When you see that moment in which children realize that they have the chance to make a difference for animals – that is probably what inspires me the most and what I get excited about the most,” said Lewis-Waldron. “We have a contest we’ve run for school kids for the last three years and we’ve had almost 10,000 participants. Through their efforts, they’ve reached almost five million people and it’s things like that where you can really see their creativity and their passion in action.”
As her career came full circle, Lewis-Waldron ended up directing the zoo’s internship program.
“I would recruit 100 interns annually and now I have staff that still do that under my area, so I feel like I’m kind of giving back to the college students like I once was in recruiting people every year to help share our message,” said Lewis-Waldron.
As for advice for current undergraduates students, Lewis-Waldron stressed that experience is critical. “You need to get out there in your field, whether it’s volunteering, interning, doing a co-op, networking -- it is just so key in being able to make yourself known to your future employers and get the valuable experience that you need to be successful when it comes time to graduate.”
Students interested in learning more about the Philadelphia Zoo internships should visit this site.
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Danielle Quigley