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Capturing Information, Imaginations on Comprehensive Web Site

By Karlyn Barker
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C04

The National Zoo used to have a disparate collection of Web sites, including those maintained by the zoo, its research center in Virginia and its education and fundraising arm, Friends of the National Zoo.

Since 2003, however, the public has had access to more than 7,500 pages of zoo and related material at one all-purpose Zoo/FONZ site, seen at either of two Web addresses: www.nationalzoo.si.edu or www.fonz.org.

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In addition to providing the zoo's operating hours and details about FONZ membership and volunteer programs, the Web site features interactive educational activities, a tiger cub diary kept by a Great Cats keeper and information about the Migratory Bird Center. The site also has activities that can be downloaded and used during zoo visits.

Also online: a database of the zoo's scientific publications since 1912 as well as 16 Webcams, supplying "virtual" visitors with a way to check up on the giant pandas, Asian elephants and other animals.

"The goal was to have a comprehensive resource that brought everything we do together," said FONZ spokesman Matt Olear. "We're trying to make it as easily accessible and user-friendly as possible."

The Web site, he said, had nearly 9 million visits in fiscal 2004, second on the list of most-visited Web sites operated by various Smithsonian Institution facilities. The Smithsonian's Cambridge-based Astrophysical Observatory led the list.

A centerpiece of the Web site is Conservation Central, a Fujifilm-sponsored education program that recently received its third award since its debut in January. The program is aimed at fifth- through eighth-graders, with a curriculum aligned with national teaching standards in science and social studies.

There are three interactive Web-based components for use at home or in the classroom, at no charge, with activities to tackle indoors or out that teach about conservation and the environment. The program incorporates research by zoo and other Smithsonian scientists.

One activity, "A Walk in the Forest," lets youngsters explore a virtual forest in Virginia and do field research using the same scientific methods and tools scientists use to monitor forest biodiversity.

In another activity, "Habitat Adventure: Panda Challenge!" students explore a fictional forest reserve in China and decide how best to protect the temperate-forest habitat of the giant panda.

The zoo has no way to measure how many teachers, parents and students are using the Conservation Central programs, but the programs had about 71,000 hits on the Web site from January through the beginning of November.

"One of our most fundamental goals as Friends of the National Zoo is to educate the public about animals, their habitats and the importance of conservation," Susan Lumpkin, communications director for FONZ, said in a statement. One way to achieve that goal, she said, is through the resources on the Web site, including the educational program, field trip activity guides, animal fact sheets and other material.

In addition to Web site offerings, the zoo is completing what eventually will be nearly a dozen Urban Nature Trail stations throughout the animal park. These will educate zoo visitors about local flora and fauna and teach children about plants and animals in their own back yards.

One station, "Life in a Rotting Log," will focus on the insects that live in the log and the animals that use it for shelter or food.

Admission to the zoo is free. But Pamela Bucklinger, FONZ's manager of membership and education programs, said the zoo also attracts about 15,000 participants a year to several fee-based activities, including day camp for kindergartners through fifth-graders, classes for toddlers and overnight camping at its Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal.

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