Twenty-six high school students in the Philadelphia Zoo’s award-winning Champions for Restoring Endangered Wildlife (CREW) program visited Virginia Tech to learn about education opportunities in wildlife research in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The students spent two days learning from faculty and students in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and gained important field experience on excursions off campus.

Donte Milligan, youth program coordinator at the Philadelphia Zoo, said that the mission of the Zoo CREW program is to engage local high school students in conservation and stewardship of the environment and to encourage an interest in STEM-related college choices.

“A lot of our students wouldn’t get exposure to the outdoors,” he said. “So whether it’s a trip on kayaks or something as dramatic as going to Virginia Tech, they’re getting a great opportunity to experience nature.”

Marcella Kelly, professor of wildlife in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, has coordinated an annual Zoo CREW visit to Virginia Tech for the past five years. “What’s neat about this project is that these kids are already really switched on to animals. You’d think looking around for salamanders is weird, but these kids dived right in. They had no fear of holding snakes, and they asked great questions to all of our presenters,” said Kelly, the 2013 recipient of the Philadelphia Zoo Global Conservation Leader Award for her work promoting biodiversity conservation.

The CREW’s first day started on campus, where the students listened to presentations about an undergraduate research trip to Belize, the hunting behavior of cheetahs in Africa, and efforts to monitor coyote, bear, bobcat, and deer populations in the forests around southwestern Virginia. In the afternoon, they toured Virginia Tech’s Black Bear Research Center and then learned about the role that scat detector dogs play in conservation efforts to protect wild tiger populations in Bhutan.

On their second day, the students visited the Mountain Lake Biological Station about 20 miles from campus, where they heard presentations on live-trapping coyotes and how to locate and safely handle animals in their natural habitat. The group put those skills to practice in the afternoon, searching for snakes and salamanders and learning about social networks in forked fungus beetles. The visit ended with swimming and canoeing in Riopel Pond and a cookout where students tried venison burgers.

Milligan said that the day at Mountain Lake was a highlight. “Our experience there was very hands-on. I have pictures of kids holding snakes and salamanders. The students learned how to find them and examine them and turn them loose. That’s exciting for them, to get a chance to go out to an animal’s natural habitat and interact with them.”

For Kelly, the experience of working with the Zoo CREW students every year brings her back to her own start in the field of wildlife research. “I think it’s great to go down to the high school level and engage students there. When I was in high school, I came from a similar background — I just wanted to be a vet, and I thought that was the only option if you had a passion for working with animals. But I discovered that there was a whole world of options in wildlife biology that I hadn’t ever heard of. This is a great program to show students what those options are and how they can pursue them.”

While the students enjoyed their close encounters with snakes, salamanders, and a friendly deer, the interactions they had with undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech were equally valuable. “It’s great for them to be on campus,” Milligan noted. “It’s great for them to see what it’s like to be in a program like the one at Virginia Tech. The students were excited to have the chance to ask questions and hear stories about what it’s like to be a student studying wildlife.”