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Taking a Holistic Approach to Environmental Education

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

Catherine Hubbard


The concept of a ‘biopark’ is still relatively new, and was implemented in 1996 in Albuquerque, USA - New Mexico’s largest city.  The Albuquerque BioPark consists of a zoo, aquarium and botanic garden.  It is administered as one governmental facility by the City of Albuquerque, with one director, shared staff, and a shared mission.  The zoo is located at one site, and the aquarium and botanic garden are adjoining at another location, one mile away.  Each venue attracts its own audience, and has its own identity. Yet, by linking exhibits and taking a holistic approach to the same basic conservation themes throughout the BioPark, each venue reinforces the others.   Different perspectives of nature can be explored depending on the type of display, but all exhibits illustrate biodiversity. This article addresses the benefits and challenges of integrating various education programs at all three sites into one BioPark education system.  Summer day camps, lecture series, special educational annual events, volunteers, hands-on demonstrations, teacher workshops, outreach, community networking and other aspects of educational programming are evolving at the BioPark in ways to maximize the close connections between the zoo, aquarium and botanic garden.

The Albuquerque BioPark

Working together as one system in nature, each plant and animal has an important role to play in maintaining an ecological balance.  The interdependence of all living organisms ensures the biodiversity necessary for the survival of the planet.  Effectively communicating the critical concept of biodiversity is one of the educational challenges that botanic gardens face, along with zoos and aquariums.  At Albuquerque BioPark each of the three sites works towards a common purpose, using their living collections to engage their audiences.   When strategies and resources are combined, the benefits outweigh the challenges.  Plants are the basis of life, but animals often get more of the public’s attention.  If botanic gardens collaborate with zoos and aquariums, visitors will receive a more comprehensive view of life on earth.  At the BioPark, the zoo, aquarium and botanic garden do more than collaborate, they operate as a system that is a regional attraction for almost a million visitors a year.

The Rio Grande Zoo, Albuquerque Aquarium and Rio Grande Botanic Garden are existing components of the Albuquerque BioPark, and will soon be joined by Tingley Aquatic Park (consisting of several ponds and acres of land adjacent to the Rio Grande riparian forest).  The 280-acre BioPark is administered as one integrated facility by the City of Albuquerque, with one director, shared staff and a shared mission.  The Rio Grande Zoo was founded in 1927 and is the most established component of the BioPark.  The Rio Grande Botanic Garden and Albuquerque Aquarium opened in 1996, a result of a quality of life tax assessed by the City in the late 1980’s.  The botanic garden and aquarium share an adjoining plaza, located one mile from the zoo.  Within a year, Tingley Aquatic Park will open along with a train (3/4 scale) to physically connect the zoo with the botanic garden and aquarium.
The BioPark is the number one tourist attraction in the state of New Mexico.  New exhibits and special events are continually being added at one or more of the components to maintain a high level of community interest.  A successful visit at one component reflects positively on the other components. As mentioned, we report to one director and share staff and departments such as graphics, marketing, budget, concessions and education.  This ensures a consistency in operations.   A conscious effort is made, for instance, to equally promote all three components and market the BioPark to the surrounding cities and states.  The horticulture team designs, plants and maintains the grounds at the zoo as well as the botanic garden, so both places are a rich botanical experience. We offer a combination ticket price as well as admission just for the zoo or just for the garden and aquarium since each has the potential to attract different audiences with different interests.  Frequently, however, visitors arrive intending to visit just one setting and end up seeing all three.  This audience cross-over has both fiscal and educational benefits.

Educational advantages

For the Education staff at the BioPark, the educational advantages of taking a holistic approach to conservation offers the most compelling reason to function as one facility.  It can be challenging to maintain a strong identity as a garden, and an aquarium, and a zoo while also functioning as a team within one integrated facility.  However, the education staff work to maximize the natural connections among all three settings and staff, volunteers, programs and interpretation all support the same education mission ‘to teach about interdependence and the diversity of life while inspiring a sense of stewardship for our natural world’. 

The education department has a BioPark curator of education who works at all three settings and divides her time among them.  There are two education coordinators that report to her, one based at the garden/aquarium and one based at the zoo.  The education coordinators have their own support staff, and teachers who assist with site-specific programs and volunteers.  There are also educational staff members responsible for programming for all three settings, and these may be based at either site - for example, outreach staff and the performing arts facilitator.  The education staff stay connected by, for example, alternating sites for team meetings, frequently communicating with each other to avoid scheduling conflicts and staying informed.

Using volunteers

Volunteers are especially important for the delivery of education at the BioPark. Efforts are made to recruit adult and teen volunteers through the usual mass-market outlets such as the newspaper, radio and television.  We also post information at locations where we will find specific target groups, such as at plant nurseries, vet clinics, or dive shops.  Over 10 different jobs are offered at different times of the year, but the recruitment and training occur at the same time for each job.  For instance, all docents are recruited in the late summer, and are trained in the fall to work at the zoo, garden or aquarium.  While, most of the training days are site-specific, several are the same covering general ecology topics.  An option is also available to train simultaneously for two of the sites as a docent.  Some volunteer jobs follow a similar training procedure, while other jobs are only available at one of the sites (e.g., working at the garden railroad, staffing the touch pool). 

Depending on the job, once trained, volunteers can choose to weed in the botanic garden or at the zoo, teach at any of the settings, or alternate locations where they want to greet visitors on a daily basis.  Determining an equitable system of recognition for all the volunteer jobs has proven to be complex and challenging, and has evolved each year, but volunteers are patient as changes are made.    The range of volunteer jobs and sites available is viewed as an asset for some volunteers, while others choose to specialize in certain areas and remain there for their career at the BioPark. Regardless of where they work or what they do, efforts are made to make the volunteers realize their worth to the BioPark and enhance the visitor’s experience.

Programmes at the BioPark

Programs are a focus for over 300,000 people a year at the BioPark.  Local and state-wide outreach, camps, teacher workshops, pre-school classes, tours, on-site exhibit interpretation, monthly lectures and special educational events are a sample of the offerings that happen at the zoo, garden and aquarium.  Most happen at more than one site, and the format is similar through out the BioPark for each of the individual programs.  Some programs alternate locations on a weekly basis, other programs alternate daily, and some programs happen simultaneously at different settings to create more synergy. 

Throughout the summer, eight camps are offered that cover general concepts such as habitats, adaptations, biodiversity, and endangered species as well as topics more specific to each setting.  Two of the camps are held at the zoo; two at the garden; two at the aquarium. Two camps alternate locations through out the week, allowing the children to sample the entire scope of the BioPark.  The difficulty with this arrangement is communicating successfully with the parents on where to pick up or drop off their child, but the evaluations conducted at the end of the week provide evidence that the parents feel it is worth it. For special educational events, they may happen simultaneously at all three settings (i.e., the week long Conservation Arts Festival which features different activities at each site) or one day of a weekend may feature activities at the garden and the next day the activities are at the zoo, like the format adopted for International Migratory Bird Day.  Over the years, an idea for a special event may start at one setting (e.g., Winter Wool Festival began at the zoo as it related to alpacas and llamas) and soon involve another setting (now the Festival is also at the garden and the focus is on plant dies for wool). By establishing an underlying pattern to each program and using similar visuals and terminology, we attempt to reinforce the same basic conservation messages.

In Albuquerque, we’re fortunate to have a park that encompasses a zoo, botanic garden, and aquarium and the role each has in communicating our environmental education message is enhanced when teamed with the other settings.  Increasing our visitors’ awareness and understanding of plants will lead them to recognize their value more, no matter where they learn it:  garden, zoo or aquarium.


Le concept de « bioparc » est encore relativement récent et a été mis en place en 1996 à Albuquerque, Etats-Unis, la plus grande ville du Nouveau Mexique. « L’Albuquerque BioPark » est constitué d’un zoo, d’un aquarium et d’un jardin botanique. Il est administré comme une structure publique unique par la ville d’Albuquerque, avec un directeur, un personnel et des missions communes. Le zoo est sur un site, à environ 1,5 km de l’aquarium et du jardin botanique qui sont côte à côte. Chaque lieu attire un public particulier et a sa propre identité. Cependant, en liant les expositions et avec une approche holistique des mêmes thèmes de base sur la conservation dans tout le BioPark, chaque lieu renforce le message de l’autre. Selon le type de présentation, différents points de vue sur la nature peuvent être explorés mais tous illustrent la biodiversité.

Cet article traite des avantages et des défis pour intégrer les divers projets éducatifs des trois sites en un système éducatif au BioPark. Les stages d’été, les programmes de conférences, les manifestations annuelles, les bénévoles, les démonstrations pratiques, les ateliers pour enseignants, les activités sociales et la mise en réseau au niveau local, ainsi que d’autres aspects de la programmation pédagogique évoluent au BioPark pour optimiser les connections entre le zoo, l’aquarium et le jardin botanique.


El concepto del "Bio-parque" que fue implementado en 1996 en Albuquerque, EU, es aun relativamente nuevo.  El Bio-Parque de Alburqueque consiste de un zoológico, acuario y jardín botanico.  Es administrado como una facilidad gubernamental por la ciudad de Alburqueque, con un solo director, un mismo personal, y una misión común.  El zoológico está situado en una localidad distinta al acuario y al jardín botánico los cuales están a una milla (1,6 kilometros) uno de otro.  Cada entidad atrae a su propio público y tiene su propia identidad.  Pero se interlazan las exposiciones y hay una consideración holística de los temas de conservación que son comunes en todo el Bio-parque, y así cada local refuerza los mensajes de los otros dos.  Los diferentes aspectos de la naturaleza pueden explorarse de diferentes maneras dependiendo en el tipo de exposición, pero todo lo expuesto ilustra la biodiversidad. 

Este artículo hace referencia a los beneficios que dan y a los retos que presentan la integración de los diferentes programas educativos de las tres localidades dentro de un sistema de educación para el Bio-parque. Los campamentos de verano, las series de charlas, los eventos anuales especiales, los voluntariados, las demonstraciones prácticas, los talleres de profesores, la promoción, el networking con la comunidad, y otros aspectos de la programación educativa, se desarrollan en el Bio-parque de una manera que se benefician lo mas posible de la  cercana relación entre el zoológico, el acuario y el botánico.

Catherine Hubbard is the Acting Manager for Rio Grande Botanic Garden and BioPark Education Curator,

Catherine Hubbard
Education Curator
Albuquerque Biopark
903 Tenth Street SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102