Students travel to the Detroit Zoo to study animal behaviors

Dr. Preston Foerder, a comparative psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Detroit Mercy, arranged for students in his Comparative Psychology class to visit the Detroit Zoo throughout the 2023 fall semester. During their visits, students observed the behavior of a specific animal of their choosing, providing them with a real-world application of topics that they learned throughout the course.

The class visited the Detroit Zoo four times over the semester. Visits were held during in-class hours. On their first trip, students were introduced to the Detroit Zoo and its animal welfare program. They explored various animal enclosures, selecting an easily identified animal that they would focus on for the rest of their visits. Students would later note down all the actions of their chosen animal in an ethogram – a detailed list of behaviors from a specific animal. Animals studied by students ranged from eagles to otters, giraffes, bears, gorillas, and more.

In the following trips, the class would spend an hour watching the animal’s actions through scan-sampling, a method of observation that occurs in minute intervals. By the end of their experience, students collected 120 data points to answer their questions which would later be culminated into an insightful final project.

Foerder aimed for students to leave the course with a deeper understanding of why animals do certain things like problem-solving, or socializing. 

“I hope that they (students) learn to appreciate more about animals; that animals are capable of a lot more than we think,” Foerder said.

Jazmin Parker, a first-year student at the University of Detroit Mercy studying developmental psychology, enjoyed her experience taking Foerder’s Comparative Psychology class. 

“It was insightful learning from professor Foerder. I learned a lot about animals in a way I did not think I would,” Parker said. “It was also very intriguing and fun when we went to the Zoo to learn about animal behavior.”

Parker’s chosen animal was a female southern sea otter named Ollie, who she recognized from the blonde fur on her head. She observed Ollie’s distinct behaviors like grooming, swimming on both her back and stomach, rubbing her paws together and flipping around in somersaults. 

“She was the cutest animal at the Zoo in my opinion,” Parker said.

By visiting the Zoo, Parker developed a deeper understanding of the course. 

“Going to the Zoo helped me accomplish learning goals in the class, as I was able to make connections between the behaviors I observed in my animal and what we were learning about,” Parker said. “I understand how animals and psychology connect, as well as why and how animals evolve, act, and live the way they do.”

Before coming to the University of Detroit Mercy in the fall of 2022, Foerder taught at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Tenn., for nine years. It was there that he had first arranged class-visits to the zoo to study animal behavior. He believes that it is important for students to do experiential activities, as it connects students to topics learned throughout the course. 

“It is very easy to take an entire course on animal behavior without actually seeing an animal all semester,” Foerder said. “However, if you spend a period of time watching an animal, you’ll see things you would have never imagined.”

Foerder currently teaches biopsychology, learning and behavior, the history pf psychology, research and laboratory methods, as well as a graduate level course on physiological psychology. Although his Comparative Psychology class was presented as a special kind of course this semester, he hopes that zoo trips will be added to the curriculum. 

“I am hoping we will do it again in the future,” Foerder said. “Hopefully we’ll keep this relationship between the students, the course, the zoo and the University.”