Giant pandas have been sitting around, "fat, dumb and happy", for 9 million years, Jim Foster tells the secondary school students gathered around him in the early morning light at Edinburgh Zoo.
"They are among the oldest species on Earth. With no natural predators, plenty of food, and a climate and habitat that suit them well, they have never had to evolve. They are endangered now only because of us humans. So we have a duty to protect them."
It's a fascinating story. But it's a story without a star as Tian Tian, the female of the zoo's new pair of pandas, refuses for some time to put in an appearance for the Uddingston Grammar and Craigmount High students on the award-winning ZEST programme.
"It stands for Zoo and Environment Skills Training and it's aimed at 15 to 17-year-olds," says Alaina Macri, the member of the zoo's 11-strong education team who delivers the course. "We've been running it here for three years."
The year-long programme sees senior students from selected schools attend Edinburgh Zoo for one day a month of practical work around the departments - education, animal sections, gardens, visitor services, marketing - together with weekly in-school sessions from their teachers and, on occasion, the zoo's education team.
Students on the programme - this year there are 16 of them - work towards several SQA qualifications, including Access 3 social subjects, the employability award and the practical abilities and self and work units of the personal development award.
"Just as important as the qualifications are the core skills they're gaining," says John Greechan, acting depute head at Uddingston Grammar in South Lanarkshire.
"Maybe some of them will go on to work in zoos or with animals. Maybe none will. But they are all getting out of their comfort zone. They're all communicating through social media, presenting to an audience, working on projects in teams with people they don't know. These are very valuable transferable skills. It's hard work for them, but they're happy - which always helps the learning."
Up in the tapir enclosure, young Tyrone Lynch doesn't look all that happy as he strews straw on the sleeping area of another endangered species that, like the panda, is hard to breed in captivity. But first impressions are deceptive. "I love it here," he says with a smile.
"I wanted to work with the primates, but I wouldn't have got anything done. I'd have been watching the chimps all day. Animals are so interesting. So instead they've got me working with the hoofstock keepers."
A large group of animals related to horses and cows, hoofstock includes tapirs, hogs, deer and zebras, as well as the wrinkled rhinos in the next enclosure. Samir and Bertus might look ferocious, but unless severely provoked they are big softies, as Tyrone is about to discover, since it's now time for Leah, the young keeper who mentors him, to give a lesson in rhino training.
"We need the animals to display different parts of their bodies for health checks," she explains. "The rhinos are not hard to train because they are smart."
Sure enough the two huge beasts, pointed ears swivelling to track the sounds, come when called, lift their feet when asked, and take crunchy carrots as a reward, licking the keepers' hands affectionately with big pink tongues. Tyrone is enthralled. "They're loving the attention," he observes. "They're just like big dogs that weigh a couple of tonnes."
Farther up the hill, a small group of ZEST students are hard at work in a polytunnel, tending to rows of straggly green plants in pots. "It's bamboo," young Matthew Kurtz explains. "At the moment the zoo has to buy it and get it brought in to feed the pandas. So the plan is to grow it here instead. We're working on that."
Chelsea Dickson has some gardening experience, she says. "I help my grandma in her garden. But this is different. It's enjoyable, exciting. You're learning different stuff and taking in new information. It's more interesting than I expected, because so much is new to me."
Back in the education building, Alaina talks about the breadth of expertise needed to run a modern zoo. "So the ZEST course is not just young people working with animals. They're learning teamwork, communication, planning. They prepare a presentation on conservation from a range of topics, such as amphibians in trouble, human-carnivore conflicts or reintroducing animals to the wild."
Working in pairs, the students design and build an enrichment assignment, she says, pulling up photos from last year's course of a cardboard deer being carefully constructed by two young lads, then torn to pieces by one of the zoo's black panthers.
"They were pleased about that," Alaina says. "It did its job. Enrichment is about adding something to a captive animal's environment that helps them behave as they would in the wild. Zoo keepers often do it and it's part of the ZEST course. It enables the students to be creative while learning about animal behaviour."
Teaching is also a good route to better learning, so each year several ZEST students are assigned to the zoo's education team, where they play an active role in delivery. Robyn McCormack has already delivered talks at the daily penguin parade, she says, which regularly draws an audience of hundreds.
"I've also done the sun bear, and the other student in education has done the chimpanzee and rhino talks," she says, with a small smile caused by a nearby penguin comically attacking the hosepipe that a further student is using to clean their enclosure.
"The talks were a bit nerve-wracking at first, but enjoyable, and I'm thinking now I might like to do something like this when I leave school. It has broadened my horizons."
Besides talks to visitors around the zoo, the education team also delivers to schools. This morning Robyn is assisting primary specialist Joanna Dick with a lesson to a party of P2s from Craigclowan Prep School, Perth - who already seem to know much more than most people about penguins.
"That's right, this is a gentoo," Joanna confirms, in the brightly-lit classroom of the education building, putting a life-sized, cardboard penguin to one side and reaching for another. "We have three kinds of penguin at the zoo, as you'll see when we get out there - gentoo, rockhopper and king penguin. Who can tell me how we know this is a gentoo?"
As the absorbingly interactive lesson continues, with kids getting to feel parts of a penguin and imitating the actions of the different species, Louisa Wood, head of junior and middle school at Craigclowan, explains why she and her wee ones have made the trip from Perth.
"We're doing a whole-term project on penguins and the Antarctic. We come every year but usually just to visit the zoo. I only recently found out that they deliver lessons like this. It's wonderful - pitched absolutely perfectly for my kids.
"The reason, by the way, that we're so good at the penguin actions is that we've been waddling from one classroom to another in school for quite some time now."
Back at the panda enclosure, there's a ripple of excitement among the ZEST students, as the black and white face of Tian Tian appears at last, and she descends the slope to the little pool, with a rolling gait on all- fours that looks powerful and controlled. "Pandas are very strong," Mr Foster confirms.
"They are not cuddly at all. They're territorial, solitary animals and below that fur is solid muscle. The only time they get together is for the three days each year when a female comes into heat. That's usually at the end of February. We'll be watching Tian Tian carefully then, taking urine samples, seeing if she goes up to the grille to show herself to the male in the next enclosure.
"When the time is right, we'll let them come together to mate. If all goes well, she'll give birth three to five months later. If you take a slab of butter from the supermarket and cut it in half lengthwise, that's the shape, size and appearance of a newly-born panda cub - tiny, squishy and completely helpless."
As Mr Foster reaches the end of his talk, Alaina reminds the fascinated ZEST students that they can come and watch the pandas again at lunchtime. "Right now, though, we need to get back to the education centre," she tells them.
"You guys have work to do."
ZEST won the Innovation award for Edinburgh Zoo at the annual SQA Star Awards in November 2011.
The ZEST programme, with links to detailed course materials: www.edinburghzoo.org.ukeducationzest.html
BRINGING LEARNING TO LIFE
Edinburgh Zoo's education programmes have, according to their figures, reached over 1 million school pupils in the past four decades. Lessons currently on offer, for youngsters from nursery to S6, have all been developed or adapted for Curriculum for Excellence.
Topics include senses, rainforests and growth and development, aimed at P1-3, biodiversity, bone detectives and endangered animals for P4-7, and conservation, adaption, biodiversity and evolution for secondary school. All sessions are interactive and last from 40 minutes for the youngest up to two hours for senior secondary.
In addition, the zoo's education team runs special events and activities for pupils and teachers, including a one-day global classroom conference on invasive species on 1 March 2012, to support the new Higher biology, and a one-week science summer school in August for S4-S5 students.
Teaching Biodiversity with Beavers is a new CPD session, based around the reintroduction of the beaver to Scotland, and offered for the first time at Edinburgh Zoo last week.
"We have just formed a new partnership with Glasgow Science Festival to make the beaver CPD and lessons more accessible to schools in the west of Scotland," says education officer Amy Cox. "We'll be delivering those for the first time in Glasgow this June."
Teaching Biodiversity with Beavers from Edinburgh Zoo Education Centre ran from 12.30-4pm. The pound;15 cost included entrance to the zoo from 9am onwards: 0131 314 0324
Science Summer School and Invasive Species conference, 1 March 2012. Polly Phillpot, senior education officer: 0131 314 0335, email@example.com
Original headline: What's black and white and enthuses young learners?