Friday, September 14, 2012

“I want to be a vet when I grow up!”

How many of you said that when you were a child? Or are saying it now if you are young? Maybe you noticed in our personal stories of how we each came to Think Elephants that several mentioned back in the day they too wanted to be a vet when they were older. Then somewhere along the way they decided against it and went a completely different route, one that may not have even involved animals. It wasn’t until later, perhaps university, when they discovered there were all sorts of other jobs and careers out there, aside from being a vet, where one could still be involved with the animals they loved as a child. 

At the beginning of each school year, we ask the kids in our education programs what they want to be when they grow up, and guess what? The most common answer is a veterinarian. These children have an interest in animals, and this is one of the only people they know who gets to work with animals for a living. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an 11-year old child growing up to be a vet – we need vets, we rely on their expertise to help us care for our elephants (and our pets). The issue is, what happens to those who don’t grow up to be veterinarians? 

The years between elementary school and high school are quite influential in guiding students to later career choices. Research has shown that by the time a child is about 13 or 14 years old, while they may not have decided what exactly they want to do for a career, they have decided what they don’t want to do. So if at some point that 11-year old realized they don’t want to be a vet, and this was the only career they knew of that involved animals, what will they pursue instead? Perhaps they will decide to be a lawyer, nurse, plumber, teacher, or pilot, as these are other careers with which they are familiar. We of course need people in these roles as well, but as adults, we know there are hundreds of positions that involve animals in one way or another. Does the child who decides not to be a vet have to abandon the idea of helping the animals that fascinate them?

Absolutely not. But the reason many do is because they likely haven’t been exposed to any other potential career choices. Therefore, at Think Elephants International our education programs, which are geared toward children in middle school, capitalize on students’ interest in elephants, and animals in general, and introduce them to a whole array of possible jobs and careers. Students don’t just read about a generic person working a hypothetical job, they meet these people face-to-face and hear about, and ask them about, what it is they do every day. A core part of our curriculum is providing students regular opportunities to interact with local, and not so local via videoconferencing, individuals who have careers that involve animals and/or conservation. These people are scientists, researchers, academics, government officials, policy makers, zookeepers, veterinary surgeons, and so on. Not only do these guest speakers introduce students to potential career choices in science, they serve as positive role models. One of these speakers may very well be the first networking connection a student makes along their individual career path. A path that we hope involves science and conservation! 

Jen Pokorny, Ph.D.
Head of Education Programs

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