Special education class works with Ross Park Zoo to increase accessibility
When signing up for classes, many students focus on a single semester and their short-term goals — getting good grades and learning new material. With community-engaged classes such as Introduction to Special Education 411, students can accomplish these short-term goals while also leaving a lasting impact on the community.
Introduction to Special Education 411 is designated by the University’s Center for Civic Engagement as a community-engaged learning course, which means the faculty member leading the course, Associate Professor Candace Mulcahy in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership (TLEL), submitted an application demonstrating that the course meets nationally recognized standards that enhance student learning and deepen mutually beneficial University-community engagement.
Since receiving a grant last summer to collaborate with colleagues Pamela Sandoval, associate professor in TLEL, and Anne Clark, associate professor of biological sciences, and the Ross Park Zoo in Binghamton, Mulcahy and her students have been hard at work researching and developing ways to make the zoo more accessible and inclusive.
In the project’s first stages, Mulcahy and her students focused on quantitative research, studying ways that other zoos have made strides toward being more accessible and ways that they could develop solutions to accessibility issues specific to Ross Park Zoo. They next surveyed the community to assess the zoo’s needs from the community stakeholders’ point of view. Sandoval and her students also conducted a focus group with community organizations who serve individuals with disabilities and Mulcahy and her students developed a survey that is currently being administered to area residents.
This spring, as Sandoval’s students analyzed data from the focus group, the class reviewed the Ross Park Zoo’s website and made recommendations for improvement from an inclusivity and accessibility standpoint. The class also took a field trip to the zoo to get a better understanding of how it is currently functioning.
Sarah Mills, a senior majoring in physics and minoring in education and Spanish, described her part of the project. This semester, she and her fellow group members are developing social narrative cards to help individuals with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder.
“Social narratives help individuals with autism feel more comfortable and demonstrate positive and appropriate behaviors in different situations,” she said. “They also help the person learn and interact with their environment better. As an example, a social narrative card may describe how using a loud voice may scare the animals in the zoo, and to try not to do that.”
Mills hopes that the zoo posts the cards on its website so that families with a member with autism can use them as practice before they travel to the zoo.
Adam Kantor, a senior majoring in mathematical sciences and minoring in education, said that he is working on developing content for QR codes for the exhibits. By scanning these QR codes, patrons can get a more immersive experience with added content without needing to bend down to look at a sign.
Kantor said this class has been unlike any other he has taken in his college career.
“In my other classes, I memorize facts, core concepts and strategies to do well on exams with the hope of applying the knowledge I learned in the future,” he said. “However, volunteering at the Ross Park Zoo allows me to cut out the middle part and jump straight into applying knowledge and making a difference in the community.”
Some other projects that students are currently developing include improving signage within the zoo so people with disabilities will have a better idea of how far away the next exhibit is, adding an accessibility section to the zoo’s website to describe all of the resources that are available, analyzing the strides of certain animals based on their paw prints and painting them on the ground to make the exhibit more interactive and recommending where certain quiet spaces should be.
Mulcahy was born and raised in the area and feels grateful that she can give back to the community in this way. She hopes that students recognize the value in taking a community-engaged course.
“An experience like this can help open up a lot of opportunities for people,” she said. “This opportunity provides a window into something different, something very real for people.”
Even though the grant for the class ends in October, Mulcahy does not plan to end the project any time soon. She hopes that another grant will be funded so improvements at the zoo can continue. As for the project’s long-term goals, Mulcahy hopes other University departments can come together and help the effort to make the zoo a better community resource. With the assistance of Mulcahy and her students, the Ross Park Zoo — the fifth oldest zoo in the country that opened in 1875 — will be more accessible, inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities and others for many more years to come.