Hundreds of Lufkin Middle School sixth-graders are spending their mornings attending school at Ellen Trout Zoo.

The zoo’s education program allows students to come in and learn and sends zoo educators to schools. Director of Educational Services Whitney Heckler said the zoo works with all of the Lufkin ISD campuses to do some type of science programming.

“We have a really close relationship with the middle school and the high school,” Heckler said. “We see all of the sixth-graders this week and next Tuesday, and we also have a program where we meet all the seventh-graders as well for their science programs. It’s so exciting.”

Social studies teacher Veronica Bryan said she thinks the program is great for the students because it gives them real-life experience.

“Instead of just hearing about habitats, they’re actually seeing their habitats,” Bryan said. “They get tired of hearing us, so for them to hear from experts and see that there are people who make their living working with animals is great.”

The students split into four groups and rotated through four rotations covering different topics. Two rotations were scavenger hunts outside. One covered the organization of an ecosystem, and one taught the students to identify abiotic components and biotic organisms.

“Biotic is living things, and abiotic is not living things,” 11-year-old Jakendrick Clevenger said.

“We’re identifying things like rocks that are abiotic,” 11-year-old Sara Garcia said.

“And the animals here and grass are biotic,” Jakendick said.

They’ve seen snakes, owls, monkeys and more. They said having class at the zoo is way better.

“The room is kinda boring,” Jakendrick said.

“In class, you’re just sitting down, and here at the zoo we’re walking around,” Sara said.

“This gives us memories,” Jakendrick said.

“And there’s more adventure, too,” Sara said.

Zoo educator Taylor Burley-Galaviz gave a lesson on zoonotic diseases, teaching the students to identify different types of bacteria, parasites, fungus and viruses.

She taught them about salmonella and how it is found in raw eggs commonly found in things like cookie dough.

“Don’t some people drink raw eggs to get buff?” one student asked.

“Yes, and that’s a risk they’re willing to take,” Burley-Galaviz said.

She told the students that when they go to the doctor to get tested for strep throat, the doctor swabs the inside of their throat and looks for a certain chain of bacteria.

Trichinellosis is a parasitic infection caused by eating raw, uncontaminated meat or being exposed to cat feces. It is also one of the diseases that zookeepers look out for in animals that haven’t had exposure to cats before.

“When you want to work at the zoo, do you get a shot so you can touch the animals?” one student asked.

“We do get different vaccinations, but then we also get TB tests, stuff like that,” Burley-Galaviz said.

The students continued to ask questions and engage, and Burley-Galaviz often had to assure them that topic was up next.

Grace Juarez’s email address is

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