Eric Hupperts is the former Living Exhibits Manager at The Green Planet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he reveled in the land of camels, tea, and endless cultural experiences. Previous to Dubai Eric was involved with nature-based informal science education in California, Minnesota and Utah. Eric holds his Bachelors of Science in Wildlife Biology and spent time studying birds and amphibians in ecosystems as diverse as Ecuadorean cloud forests and Yellowstone alpine wetlands.
There really is no place on earth quite like Dubai. For all its glitz and glamour, there are nearly three million people residing in this city, the largest in the United Arab Emirates. The demographics of Dubai are wildly diverse; Emirati nationals represent less than 10% of the population, with nearly every other country on earth represented to some degree amongst those with resident visas. There are strong influences from other Arab countries, from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In fact, Dubai’s compulsory primary education system represents students from 184 different nationalities, reflecting the broader demographics of the Emirate of Dubai.
It is within this setting that The Green Planet was built, representing Dubai’s first science museum and housing within it a living tropical forest ecosystem. In contrast to its arid, urban setting, inside The Green Planet guests are immersed within the pulse of a tropical forest. Flashy, colorful birds fly between the branches of large canopy trees while freshwater fishes swim in the pool below. A sloth sleeps in a beam of sunlight and poison dart frogs hunt for prey in the shadow of an emerald tree boa. Leaf-cutting ants hurriedly cart their cuttings down into their subterranean fungus groves. At five stories in height with a path leading from the canopy down to the forest floor, guests are able to experience the vertical aspect that many tropical forests are well known for.
In addition to its regular visitors, The Green Planet was designed and built with visits from school children in mind. An entire department offers multiple curriculums aligned with the learning objectives established by Dubai’s Ministry of Education. Two education labs offer lecture-learning opportunities while the exhibit itself is utilized as a living classroom, allowing students to experience in real-time the concepts they are discussing.
Ecology, conservation, and animal welfare are concepts that guests and students have diverse views on based upon their life experiences. Dubai is the cross roads of East meets West, where the life experiences of growing up in a developing country collide with the life experiences of growing up in a developed country. And like urban residents across the globe, many visitors have had little exposure to nature, especially as a facilitated experience.
As educators, our key challenge is to bridge these divides and create a more even platform upon which to deliver strong concepts of ecology and conservation. How did we accomplish that? By creating personal moments for our visitors to gain a closer experience in their journey. We facilitate this experience with story telling and creating pathways for emotional connections with the living species in the forest.
Take, for example, our leaf cutter ant exhibit. Surprisingly, this exhibit that has some the longest staying power in the entire building. This simple exhibit showcases a colony of leaf cutter ants as they go about their day: cutting leafy material, carrying this material across vines, tending to their fungus gardens. Why is this glorified ant farm such a crowd pleaser? Because this exhibit is facilitated by a staff member who tells the story of the leaf cutter ants. Instead of just reading about ant facts on a sign, guests can listen to a staff member place these facts into context. Did you know that a leaf cutter ant colony consists of entirely sisters, all daughters of the queen mom? Once that story is begun, once that delivery platform was more relatable for our visitors, then entire families would crouch down and peer into the subterreranean fungus chambers, eager to observe into the ant’s world while listening to the staff member discuss the complexities of leaf cutting ant colonies and their importance in the rainforest ecology.
An even more grand example is the snake interactive program. Snakes are that unique group of animals that illicit strong feelings amongst humanity. A surprising number of visitors express interest in seeing a snake, but there is intense cultural baggage that surrounds the stories of snakes in relation to people. This serpentine cultural baggage is often negative: all snakes are dangerous, all snakes are venomous. Of course this isn’t true, so at The Green Planet we trained a contingent of staff to handle live snakes and give our visitors an opportunity create a personal moment, to make that emotional connection.
Many of our staff that became trained snake-handlers hail from countries with strong negative views on snakes. When these staff members started on their journey to become trained snake handlers, being in close proximity to a snake, let alone to touch or handle one, was a frightening idea. However, as we integrated these staff into the snake handling program and that fear of snakes was replaced with an emotional connection to these animals, our new snake handlers became perfect interpreters for our visitors. They are able to quickly engage timid or questioning visitors precisely because of the shared experience.
Now, as guests explore the forest, they may encounter a staff member carrying a snake. This staff member will give our guests the option to see a live snake up close, take a selfie with the snake, or even gently touch the snake. Then, by creating this opportunity for an emotional connection to the snake, the staff member will begin to tell stories of this snake species, putting these facts into context. This often leads to conversations beyond just the snake, into deeper topics highlighting the ecology and conservation of forest ecosystems.
The Green Planet’s key niche has been in creating personal moments for our visitors to gain a closer experience with tropical forests. Once that platform for empathy has been engaged, the opportunities for deeper learning experiences are opened up and the facts on these species are interpreted using the context of stories. In a metropolis as diverse as Dubai, where visitors have vastly divergent world views and life experiences, creating this platform for empathy through personal moments has proven successful in delivering messages on forest ecology and conservation.