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Photo Ark: Results of A Collaborative Partnership

Collaborations with our community are an incredible opportunity to create meaningful connections. Tacoma students at Science and Math Institute (SAMi), School of the Arts (SOTA), and School of Industrial Design, Engineering and Art (IDEA) have the option to select a “Mini-term.” For one month, students participate in a daily, intensive project-based class. Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Tacoma Public Schools co-designed the Photo Ark class. And the results are beautiful and inspiring!

Photo Ark – Students at Asian Forest Sanctuary

Students in this course are able to participate in something “authentic and relevant to the community,” explains Liz Minks, co-director of SAMi. Alongside technical skills, students learn global thinking skills to communicate and create inspiring portraits of Zoo animals in their habitats. Led by the instructor and professional photographer Ms. Heather Gilson, students have access to a line-up of DSLR cameras, Adobe Photoshop and professional lighting – giving them all the equipment they need to unleash their creativity.

Ms. Gilson explains she was inspired to create the course from the works of Joel Sartore, a professional photographer focusing on conservation photography and a contributor to National Geographic magazine. “It was challenging at first trying to figure out timing, studio lights, and actually getting animals to the classroom,” says Ms.Gilson. “But ultimately, our longstanding partnership and dedicated staff helped everything come together seamlessly.”

Green tree python Blade
Photo by Diego Osorio

For student Avery Silos, the experience allowed him to have a different perspective. As a current volunteer, he is familiar with the Zoo. Still, he mentions, “Being able to work with Zoo staff to get closer to the animals was really an amazing opportunity.”

Student Solomon Selkin had a similar sentiment. He explains how he used his photography to relay the importance of environmentalism and species protection. “In the future, I want to spend more time reflecting on the reasoning behind my photos. I want to connect them to an environmental or social issue,” says Solomon.

This special connection between students and wildlife is one to celebrate. “I was surprised by the empathy the students developed,” says Ms. Gilson when describing how students interacted with the animals. Students were happy to move to the floor so that animals could be photographed safely while being closely monitored by their zoo caretakers.

Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater show rescue dog Rocket
Photo by Alyssa Hall

This connection to the animals made its way into the work the students produced. “The best shots were those that elicited emotion,” says Ms. Gilson. Students learned more about the animals’ personalities and backgrounds – and took the time to creatively tell the animals’ stories.

Minks explains how empathy is one of the four values at SAMi, and tying that into the course prepares students to engage in real work and become stewards of conservation efforts. When learning about the endangered red wolves, students connected with the importance of preserving and documenting this species. In return, they created beautiful work showcasing the red wolves.

Zoo Conservation Engagement Curator Wendy Spaulding says this specialized learning project creates meaningful engagement and brings personal meaning to the subject matter.

SAMI student Eric Vasquez echoes that. “Seeing the animals up close and their enrichment activities gave me a greater appreciation for all of them. This was the best class I’ve taken in all of high school,” says Eric.

Endangered American red wolf Peat
Photo by Eric Vasquez

Ms. Gilson exclaims the partnership with the Zoo was an incredible experience. When asked what her dreams were for the course in the future, she described taking students to Northwest Trek and creating a book with their work that includes more of the animals’ stories. “It’s definitely something I want to do again next year,” she says.

Awakening a connection to wildlife is the Zoo’s mission. And Wendy Spaulding said it best: “This is just one example of the creative synergy between the Zoo and Tacoma Public Schools to achieve shared goals. It is such a joy to be a part of.”


More Images From Photo Ark

Canada lynx Jasper
Photo by Eric Vasquez
Prehensile-tailed skink Makara
Photo by Solomon Selkin
Endangered Sumatran tiger Indah
Photo by Avery Silos
Endangered American red wolf Peat Photo by Noa Oden
Endangered American red wolf Peat
Photo by Noa Oden
Burrowing Owl Pebbles
Photo by Avery Silos