NEW YORK (Reuters) - Science class for a group of 12-year-old New Yorkers frequently means a day at the zoo, petting a monitor lizard, laughing at infant gorillas as they wrestle or seeing how a giant rock python hunts in the dark.
“I love animals and it’s fun,” said Marquis Palmer, 12.
“If nobody cared about animals they would all be dead. Plus, we wouldn’t really have anything to eat,” he said, with a mischievous grin, explaining why he loves science during a recent scavenger hunt at the Bronx Zoo’s Congo exhibit.
A new report by the National Academy of Sciences said informal learning -- such as at zoos or just while fishing or gardening -- is a powerful tool in science education.
Newly inaugurated President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” and educate a new generation of scientists able to transform America into an environmentally sustainable “green economy.”
But with endowments and private donations falling and public funds under pressure, the recession is making it harder for zoos and aquariums to keep inspiring kids in science.
Palmer was among a dozen children from the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, located in a struggling area of the New York borough of the Bronx, who crowded up against a glass partition to watch a pair of young gorillas during a visit last month to the Bronx Zoo.
One girl imitated a gorilla, others tapped on the glass, others called: “Can I take one home?” or “Fight, fight.”
Later they returned to a classroom at the zoo to discuss their science project to design an exhibit for a zoo animal.
The wildlife school is one of 20 themed academies created to replace underperforming schools in New York. It has close links to the nearby Bronx Zoo and offers children twice the normal amount of science classes, focusing on conservation.
But New York State, facing a $15.4 billion budget gap, is proposing to eliminate the $9 million it gives 76 zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens next year.
The governor had also proposed cutting the funding by 55 percent this year, but that is expected to be rejected by state legislators this week after intense lobbying by zoos.
Jeffrey Gordon, budget spokesman for the governor’s office, said the cut was one of many difficult choices, including cuts in spending on healthcare, education and economic development.
“New York depends very heavily on Wall Street for its revenues,” he said, pointing to the sharp fall in tax revenues as the financial sector has been rocked by crisis.
Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) that runs four New York zoos and an aquarium, said state funding of around $3 million for WCS facilities was “modest but really important,” particularly for educational activities such as the partnership with the Urban Assembly wildlife school.
“People don’t take seriously enough the out-of-classroom science education opportunity,” Sanderson said.
Around 2 million children and students visit the five WCS facilities each year and 70,000 conduct formal educational programs. The WCS also trains 2,000 public school teachers a year.
Sanderson said he has to cut $15 million from the $100 million budget that covers the century-old Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, as well as WCS administration.
Unguided school visits are free and more formal programs have fees that start around $200, which covers only part of the cost. Sara Hobel, head of WCS education, said as school budgets are cut, they will struggle to pay even those fees.
Philip Bell, associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington and co-chair of the National Academy report on informal learning, said an early interest in science often translates into further study.
Naya Motta, 11, recalls a visit to an anatomical exhibition of human bodies when she was around three, which she says she remembers because she has a photographic memory.
“It showed really interesting parts of the body, I remember that,” Motta said on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Climate Change exhibition with her class from the Salk School of Science, a public school in Manhattan.
Salk is one of the 30 percent of New York City middle schools enrolled in Urban Advantage, another partnership between schools and scientific institutions. The program trains teachers and gives kids access to zoos, museums and gardens to help them complete a mandatory science project in 8th grade.
Lisa Guggenheim, head of education at the AMNH, said Urban Advantage faced a 20 percent cut in city funding this year, so it can not expand beyond the 25,000 kids it reaches now.
The AMNH’s endowment lost around a quarter of its value between June and November, and city funding for its educational activities was cut 39 percent to $2 million this year.
Already eliminated is a program that last year gave training and summer employment to 45 New Yorkers aged 18-21, providing an introduction to a science-related career.
“We have graduates of the program that have gone on to brilliant careers. The majority of the people in the program were young people of color,” Guggenheim said.
New York institutions are among the hardest hit but they are not alone. Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is cutting $1 million from its $21 million budget, the Chicago Tribune reported.
And Paul Boyle, senior vice president of the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said many of his 216 members were cutting nonessential costs such as travel and scientific research.
Revenue from ticket sales, however, was generally holding up well because zoos and aquariums offer affordable local entertainment at a time when thrifty families are shunning expensive vacations far from home, he said.
“One of the things that tells us there is important stuff going on, and learning, is that year after year after year, 160 million people come to these institutions,” Boyle said.
Editing by Philip Barbara