Exterior of the Education Center shortly before the completion of construction in February 2017.

Exterior of the Education Center shortly before the completion of construction in February 2017.

Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo

The Oregon Zoo opened its new education center on Thursday, ahead of weekend festivities.  

The $17.2 million facility is the fifth of eight zoo improvement projects funded through a 2008 bond measure and donors.  

The education center’s theme is simple: small things matter.  

“In this space we celebrate the small animals like insects, spiders, bees, earthworms, turtles, that are all so essential to the healthy functioning of the world’s ecosystems,” said education curator Grant Spickelmier, speaking to a crowd at the grand opening.  

The education center features classrooms, a lecture hall and a Nature Exploration Station, which includes an insect zoo and western pond turtle habitat.   The buildings were designed with sustainability in mind and have “bird-friendly architecture,” locally sourced building materials and rooftop solar panels.

The center will be used for lectures and film screenings and will be the entry point for school groups visiting the zoo. Some of the zoo’s signature education programs including ZooSchool, Zoo Animal Presenters (ZAP) and ZooTeens will be housed at the education center.  

“For the past many years, these programs were housed in portable classrooms, in really bad tents, in oddball spaces around the zoo because the zoo lacked a proper dedicated space,” said zoo director Dr. Don Moore.  

Nature Exploration Station in the Education Center at the Oregon Zoo.

Nature Exploration Station in the Education Center at the Oregon Zoo.

Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo

ZAP graduate Tatiana Umaña agreed these facilities were needed.  

“Just having this space now makes us feel more united, like we [in the education programs] belong,” Umaña said.  

Umaña is a logistics coordinator for the Urban Nature Overnights program, another of the zoo’s education initiatives. She said ZAP helped her move toward her childhood goal of becoming a veterinarian, and she recently got her first job at a clinic.

The zoo has partnered with organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Portland Audubon to expand conservation education programming. A full-time interpretive ranger from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service will be stationed at the education center.

At the grand opening Thursday, Oregon Zoo Foundation trustee Kim Overhage announced the foundation has raised $1.7 million to contribute to the education center. Some of that funding will be used for scholarships for third grade students to visit the new facility.  

More than 11,000 third graders from about 120 schools in the Portland area will have the chance to visit the zoo and participate in ZooSchool programs starting this fall.

The zoo is inviting the public to attend open house events, free with zoo admission, at the new facilities March 4 and 5.

Ecologist and wildlife photographer Mark Moffett will give a talk at 7 p.m. March 4 as the first installment of the “Wildlife Talks” series.  

The zoo bond funds will also support three upcoming expansion projects — upgraded polar bear, primate and rhino habitats set to open in 2019 and 2020.