Class Takes Students Out of Lab and Into Zoo

For a group of 15 undergraduates, learning about geographic information systems (GIS) means much more than sitting in a computer lab working through made-up scenarios. Instead, it involves heading to the San Francisco Zoo to map the locations and sizes of trees, plants, and other items around the grounds.


Taught by Assistant Professor David Saah, Introduction to GIS for Environmental Studies allows students to use tools vital to environmental careers, conduct fieldwork, and analyze data using mapping software. In return, the zoo receives a wealth of useful data. The class is part of an ongoing initiative to map and analyze the zoo’s grounds; Saah began working on the project with master’s degree students two years ago after a zoo official mentioned it to him. This is the first time he has worked with undergraduates on the research.

Students work in one of four groups, with one group documenting the location, size, and health of all cypress trees in and around the African savannah exhibit. Another is documenting the cypress in the gorilla exhibit. A third group is examining the biodiversity in the grizzly bear exhibit and mapping the locations of the exhibit’s infrastructure, such as electrical outlets. The fourth group is analyzing the zoo’s vector control efforts, including where mosquito magnets are located.

The zoo will use the information as it seeks the designation of botanical garden (a certain percentage of vegetation must be documented), but the data also have other uses. With the knowledge about the cypress, for example, the zoo can decide whether the trees’ current locations are best for animals and visitors. Mapping the mosquito magnet locations could prompt the zoo to spread them out more and decrease the animals’ risk of mosquito-borne diseases.

“If you look at things on paper and check off boxes on a checklist, it looks like you’re doing everything right,” said Saah. “If you map it out, you see where the holes are.”

Instead of a final exam, students will present findings to the zoo.


“I feel like all our studying is not for nothing. We want to be as accurate as possible. We don’t want to have data they can’t use,” said Thao Nguyen, a senior majoring in environmental science.

Without the students’ help, the zoo likely wouldn’t have the information. “Most of this stuff would not be possible because the funding need would be so large,” said Tom Chiosso, the zoo’s superintendent of grounds.

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