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An Interview with an Education Development Officer in a Rainforest

An Interview with Kirsty Shakespeare, Education Development Officer at The Living Rainforest

I recently had the opportunity to visit The Living Rainforest which is part of the Trust for Sustainable Living.  It is a haven for plants and animals that wouldn't normally be seen in the English countryside but whose natural environment is in rainforests around the world.  It is one of the UK’s top eco-attractions and Kirsty manages the acclaimed Education Programme. 


This must be a dream job for someone with an interest in plant and animal life.  What did you study?

I did a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology at Anglia Ruskin University and a Master’s Degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College London based at Silwood Park, the Environmental Science campus just outside Ascot.

During your studies did you get the chance to visit some of the environments you were studying?

I was very lucky during my studies that I’ve had the opportunity to undertake lots of field trips. When studying native wildlife we visited the Isle of Rum in Scotland to study the Red Deer rut and went to Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast to carry out a Grey Seal census. As part of our studies into Zoo Management we visited several zoos in the Netherlands to learn about the behaviour and management of animals in different collections and compare them to British zoo collections and management practices.

I gained my PADI scuba dive qualifications during two university trips to Egypt and then got to attend a shark conservation and biology trip to South Africa, as part of a marine biology module, where we worked with marine biologists and shark experts from the KwaZuluNatal Sharks Board, which was an incredible experience.


“I gained my PADI scuba dive qualifications ….”



For my Master’s thesis I worked with a Professor from the University of Athens, so I spent 3 months living in central Athens studying Greek Island lizard species which involved several fieldtrips out to several Islands to collect data on the lizards and also a week catching Milos Vipers for another project studying the medicinal uses of snake venoms.

 Do you have a particular specific interest in your field?

Exotic species, particularly reptiles and amphibians have always been my main interest and they are well represented here at the Living Rainforest.  Having the opportunity to work in a rainforest environment means I am always learning new things and getting to teach others about what I love is fantastic and hugely rewarding.


“… reptiles and amphibians have always been my main interest ...


How did you find yourself working at The Living Rainforest?

I hadn’t really considered a career in education whilst I was studying, I had hoped to get into something in the environmental and conservation field but wasn’t entirely sure what. After graduating I ended up working in retail and then in financial recruitment whilst paying back loans and applying for a variety of different environmentally based roles.  I have done lots of voluntary work for different groups whilst working and realised that I had actually had quite a bit of experience working with children of various ages running educational activities, so then began looking into education and teaching positions and was lucky enough to get my role here at The Living Rainforest.


“... my role here at The Living Rainforest.


In your role as Education Development Officer what is the main focus of the education programmes you offer?

We use our indoor rainforest to allow schools to explore the amazing range of species that live in the rainforest and understand why they are important, not only biologically, but also as a valuable resource for oxygen production, medicines, foods and much more.  We teach about the current threats they face and give students the chance to understand how the choices they make here at home, such as buying Fairtrade or FSC certified sustainable wood products, can affect and help save the rainforest.

 Which age groups do you cater for?

Our formal education program is curriculum linked to support the work being taught within the classroom and caters for all ages from Reception children (aged 4) up to University students. I am also responsible for Informal education which is our visiting public program so that caters for all ages from young children to their great grandparents!



 What would you say is the main point that you want people visiting the rainforest to take away with them?

 An appreciation for what an incredible and vital ecosystem the rainforest is and a better understanding and enthusiasm for leading a more sustainable lifestyle to protect and ensure the longevity of our environment.

 What are the main questions that visitors ask?

Normally, ‘is it warm and is it indoors’ is the first question we get asked!  (The answer is yes to both). Visitors are generally keen to find out more about the animal species we have, where they come from and how we look after them. We also get asked about things visitors have seen on TV such as palm oil or renewable energies as well

What work does the Trust for Sustainable Living do?

The Trust for Sustainable Living is the educational charity which runs The Living Rainforest visitor centre. The mission of the Trust is to further the understanding of sustainable living both in the UK and abroad and encourage positive engagement for a sustainable future.

As well as the education program here which attracts around 25,000 school children and 80,000 members of the public a year, the Trust also has an International Schools Essay Competition which engages primary and secondary school students from around the world (schools from 73 countries participated last year) in different sustainability topics.  

The Trust has a partnership with the Seychelles National Botanical Garden Foundation to work on joint international educational, sustainability and biodiversity projects. We are also hoping to develop a range of online educational courses and materials for teachers and educators on sustainability subjects.

We also chair the Eco Attractions Group, with members such as The Eden Project, Centre for Alternative Technologies and Royal Botanical Gardens whose overall aim is to help people connect with natural world and engage with sustainability.



 What would your advice be to someone who would like a career in this area?

 Try and gain as much voluntary experience as you can!

Getting a position working in the zoo industry is tough; there is a lot of competition for all roles from education through to keepers, so you need to make yourself stand out. There are no two days the same when working with children and animals so having a flexible and adaptable attitude and being able to think on your feet is a very useful skill to have, as is being willing to turn your hand to any job or challenge thrown at you.

Good communication and people skills are important, as is being enthusiastic and positively engaging people is a big part of the role, you can’t be afraid to speak to people!

As Head of Department, I manage a team of 20 part time staff and volunteers; I also have to speak with teachers, schools and members of the public on a daily basis, as well as working with other Department Heads and Senior Management here and liaising with others in the zoo community from different collections. 

It is a fantastically rewarding job, but it can be hard work, long hours and unpredictable, so having a sense of humour helps!

 What do you do when you’re not working?

 I enjoy traveling and have been lucky enough to visit some amazing places through my work and studies, which has allowed me to qualify as an Advanced PADI scuba diver and also indulge in my passion for wildlife and nature photography.

I’ve recently started learning Latin and Ballroom dancing and I enjoy going to gigs, the cinema and pub quizzes with my friends.



Take a look at the experience of students studying the sciences