ISG+ New Project: Teens at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden take action “all the way to the ocean”

This guest post, by Director of Education Elizabeth Clemens and Coordinator of ZooTeens and Scout Programs Syndi Castelluccio, from Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is the first in a 3-part series on their Innovative Solutions Grants+ project, which investigates how engaging with teens and receiving incentives can impact zoo guest behavior.

Teen S.O.S.

The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden began connecting area teenagers to nature and building successful, caring members of the community more than a decade ago. Now with the support from The Ocean Project’s Innovative Solutions Grant+ we have tasked our current teens to take their love of nature one step further, to reach out and take action “all the way to the ocean.”

Although not on the coast, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden has a unique setting nestled along the banks of the Saluda River, and a direct connection to the ocean. Over the years Riverbanks teens have felt strongly about the unsightly and potentially dangerous debris left on our very own riverbanks. Regardless of the source it is an ugly problem - in more ways than one!1bag-giveaway

So this year, the teens will attempt to answer the distress call of our oceans through the Teen S.O.S (Stewards of Our Seas) initiative by tackling one of the biggest issues facing our oceans today – marine debris.

As part of a yearlong immersive effort, Teen S.O.S will look to enlighten and inspire the teens to not only take action individually, but to become a true motivational force by inspiring the community to take action that will make an impact both locally and globally. Building on their past community actions, the teens will set up “Inspiration Stations” where they can connect with Zoo guests, and engage with them in a behavior change experiment.

Setting Sail

We began by educating our teens on the issue of Marine debris and provided them opportunities to be actively engaged in reaching a solution.

  • The teens teamed up with the City of Columbia this past fall to mark all the storm drains in the Zoo that lead to local waterways with colorful medallions to educate the public about storm drains and watersheds.
  • Partnering with Keep the Midlands Beautiful, ZooTeens have scheduled a number of local waterway clean ups through the Adopt-A-Waterway program.
  • Joining forces with the Riverbanks Zoo Green Team, teens have been tasked to evaluate and identify at least one action item that would help to reduce our plastic footprint by making a permanent change in the Zoo’s daily operations.


All Aboard

Knowing that Columbia takes pride in its state, its parks, rivers, beaches and yes its Zoo, we felt the need inspire everyone to find these treasures beneath all of the trash! The teens are taking an innovative approach to reach the zoo’s one million guests.

  • The group will be crafting “Trash to Treasure” artwork from the items collected during the waterway clean-ups. This art will be displayed in the Zoo as a way to attract the attention of our guests, introduce them to the issue of marine debris and, we hope, remind South Carolinians of their Palmetto pride.


  • The teens will also create “Inspiration Stations," which will emphasize ways that zoo guests can be part of the solution, and inspire them to make changes in their daily lives to help address the problem of marine debris. Inspiration Stations will be showcased at the community-wide events - Go Green Day, Party for the Planet and World Oceans Day.


Is Knowledge Power?

Let the experiment begin! As part of inspiring change and community action, the teens will next test the theory, Is an individual more likely to use a reusable shopping bag if they are engaged by teen leaders on the problem of marine debris?”

This question will be tested using random samples of three test groups:

  • Guests simply visiting the Zoo
  • Guests engaged at an “Inspiration Station”
  • Control group of the general public


As part of this effort, we’ll be giving away reusable bags to guests. Each guest will be asked to sign a pledge that they will take the bag, use it, and complete a survey 1-2 months after receiving the bag. We’ll be looking at whether or not guests that visited the Inspiration Station are more likely than the others to report taking action to reduce their plastic footprint.

Stay tuned!