Oregon Zoo breaks ground on new education center

September 1, 2015 - 10:52am

Interactive space will feature conservation lab, auditorium and insect zoo

A crowd of shovel-wielding schoolchildren joined forces with a 30-ton excavator today, as the Oregon Zoo broke ground on its next major campus improvement: a new conservation education center slated to open in spring 2017.

The center — the fifth of eight major projects funded by the 2008 community-supported zoo bond measure — will be located in the area opposite the zoo's Amur tiger habitat and adjacent to the train station. It will provide a welcoming entry and staging area for the thousands of children who participate in zoo camps and classes each year, and serve as a regional hub, expanding the zoo's conservation education programs through partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Intertwine Alliance and others.

"This is a monumental opportunity to combine our expertise and passion with the zoo's vast experience to grow a conservation ethic in younger generations."

—Robyn Thorson, USFWS regional director

Highlights of the space include a reimagined insect zoo and an interactive species-recovery lab. Visitors will learn how zoo scientists care for endangered animals and see where rare western pond turtles are raised for release into the wild. Kids will get to practice some of the same field-research activities as zoo scientists in interactive play areas nearby.

"Across the zoo, visitors learn about animals, their habitats and the conservation challenges they face," said Grant Spickelmier, the zoo's education curator. "We want this center to help children and families appreciate that small things matter, both in the everyday actions they take and by connecting them with critically important small animals like bees, butterflies and turtles."

The center's Nature Exploration Station — or NESt — will serve as a catalyst for awareness and action, starting with the small things. From insects to plants, the environment at the NESt is designed to help visitors understand how humans and nature depend on each other. A backyard habitat garden will illustrate the importance of native plants for local wildlife habitat and remind us that, ultimately, we are all connected.

"This will be a space for the community to share nature exploration experiences and ideas for making a positive impact on the environment," Spickelmier said. "We want to encourage people to go out and help each other connect with natural world."

He noted that the zoo often serves as an entry experience, a gateway to what may become a deeper relationship with the natural world. To that end, the zoo is working with partners such as the Intertwine Alliance, Metro's Property and Environmental Services and Parks and Nature departments, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Engaging urban communities for conservation is a top priority of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and we're thrilled to be a partner in the Oregon Zoo education center," said Robyn Thorson, USFWS regional director. "This is a monumental opportunity to combine our expertise and passion with the zoo's vast experience to grow a conservation ethic in younger generations."

At the groundbreaking event, the Oregon Zoo Foundation announced the public launch of its $1.5 million Education Campaign, which will support features like technology in the classrooms, an expanded space for teen volunteers and interns, and interactive displays in the NESt, as well as ongoing and expanded education programming.

"The Oregon Zoo Foundation is proud to elevate our support for the zoo's education programs and enhance the new education center," said Kim Overhage, chair of OZF's board of trustees. "As the future of education at the zoo takes shape, our community can help us continue the legacy of learning and inspiration that generations of families have cherished."

To learn more or to make a gift, call 503-220-5707 or visit oregonzoo.org/support-education.

The project design team for the new center is led by Opsis Architecture of Portland and Jones & Jones Architects of Seattle, with interpretive components by IQ Magic of Santa Monica, Calif. The construction contractor for the project is Portland-based Fortis Construction.

Construction activities will be concentrated on zoo grounds, with some equipment staging outside the zoo fence. Impacts to Washington Park visitors are expected to be minimal.