Ash Heim

Undergraduates’ motivation following a zoo experience: Academic level matters but structure of trip does not.

Contributed by: Ash Heim



Animals, Biology Education, Conservation, Equity and Equality, Experimental, First-generation, North America, Woman



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Heim, Ash. B., & Holt, E. A. 2021. Undergraduates’ motivation following a zoo experience: Status matters but structure does not. Journal of Experiential Education: 10538259211012716. link



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Ash is a biology education postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University developing an instrument to measure students’ critical thinking in ecology lab and field courses. She is also researching student networks in physics courses as well as how open education resources are used by biology instructors. During her Ph.D. program at the University of Northern Colorado, Ash’s research focused on the impacts of how undergraduates learn in informal settings such as zoos, as well as the learner-centeredness of undergraduate biology classrooms.

PB: Why did you become a biologist?
AH: I was always curious about nature and animals as a child, but also wanted to teach; so, I combined the best of both worlds and am now a biology education researcher and instructor!

PB: What is your favorite part about your job?
AH: Getting to teach various biology courses and better understand how biology undergraduates learn!

PB: What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?
AH: Being a first-generation student definitely brought unique challenges (e.g., applying to colleges, figuring out what grad school was like, financial burdens, imposter syndrome, etc.); but if you are driven and willing to put in the effort, you can achieve whatever academic goals you have set!

PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?
AH: Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help throughout your college career! I am where I am today because of great advice and assistance I’ve received from colleagues and peers.

PB: Do you feel that any dimension of your identity is invisible or under-represented/marginalized in STEM?
AH: Yes

PB: Can you elaborate on your answer above?
AH: Not only am I a woman in STEM, but I’m a first-generation student! As a postdoc, I’ve experienced a good deal of imposter syndrome as well because of these identities.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of study

Advanced biology students report higher intrinsic motivation to learn biology than introductory students after a zoo trip. Additionally, grade motivation decreases and self-efficacy increases after a zoo trip across all types of biology students.

Study system

For this paper, Ash’s study system included undergraduate students who had an informal learning experience at a zoo, but she studies students and instructors in a variety of settings! She has collected data on students’ motivation in informal learning settings (such as zoos), and formal settings (classrooms). She also works directly with instructors to see which resources they use (open-source) or how they teach their class.


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

In our study, half of the participating students were assigned to a guided learning group in which they were required to complete a structured handout and follow a specific visitor agenda (which was enforced by graduate teaching assistant “chaperones”). The other half of the students were assigned to a free-choice learning group, in which they were required to complete a very general handout (e.g., What was the most interesting thing you learned today?) and visit whatever exhibits they wanted in whichever order they preferred (with no “chaperones”!). All students completed motivation assessments before (pre) and after (post) the zoo trip. This figure shows that students in free-choice learning vs. structured learning groups on the zoo trip benefited the same amount in terms of intrinsic motivation (A), and additionally, that advanced biology students reported being more intrinsically motivated to learn about biology before and after a zoo trip compared to introductory students (B).


Societal Relevance

Our research shows that while advanced students may have increased motivation to learn biology after a zoo trip, all students benefited in some way from a day-long zoo visit, regardless of whether they were randomly assigned to a free-choice learning group or a more structured group with a set agenda and chaperones. Thus, biology undergraduates can make equitable motivation gains after a course-associated zoo trip. Further, though not a primary focus of this specific paper, observing and interacting with live animals during a zoo trip may improve students’ understanding of conservation and influence their motivation to learn biology.


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