About Me

A young Jen crouching down and surrounded by three baby walruses.

I have an unusual background. My professional career began with the Cincinnati Zoo as I was finishing up my undergrad in English at the University of Cincinnati. I landed a job in the zoo’s education department, and it was there that I discovered my passion for non-formal teaching. I loved educating children and adults about the animals, inspiring people to care, and advocating for conservation.

Photo: My very first job at the Cincinnati Zoo was as an educational interpreter at the Walrus exhibit, circa 1996. Photo by Debbie Loebker.

Jen and another scuba diver in an aquarium with a shark swimming in front of them.

From the zoo, I followed my love for the water across the Ohio River where I began volunteering for the Newport Aquarium. I took up scuba diving just so I could dive in the exhibits. Soon the teaching skills I developed at the zoo came in handy as I became one of the first divers to perform underwater dive shows.

Me as a volunteer diver performing a dive show at the Newport Aquarium in 2002. Photo by Allen Miller.

My shows, delivered live to audiences via underwater communication equipment, were well-organized, engaging, and humorous, and quickly garnered attention from the staff. In the meantime, I was progressing through my dive training to the dive master program, where once again my affinity for teaching did not go unnoticed. Finally, my dedication and training paid off, and I was hired as the Dive Safety Officer.

As Dive Safety Officer, my job was to manage daily dive operations for the Aquarium. This included training volunteer and staff divers how to dive the exhibits safely, perform feeding and maintenance tasks, and execute emergency rescue procedures. I wrote show scripts, volunteer training materials, and the company dive safety manual, ensuring our compliance with OSHA and AZA. Yes, even while performing underwater swordfights in the shark tank.

Two scuba divers dressed as pirates and swordfighting underwater in a shark tank.
Safely perform underwater swordfights in a tank full of sharks? Just one more service I offer. Here I am (right) with two volunteer divers in the Surrounded By Sharks exhibit at the Newport Aquarium. Photo by C.J. Freeman.

After 11 years with the Newport Aquarium, I returned to the Cincinnati Zoo, this time as their new Dive Safety Officer. In just a few short years, I expanded the zoo’s dive program from volunteers cleaning the Manatee exhibit, to certifying staff members as divers and expanding dive maintenance to a total of eight large animal pools. Maintenance diving improves water quality for the animals and helps the zoo conserve millions of gallons of water each year. 

Fiona the hippo and Jen in scuba gear looking at each other underwater.
Here I am acclimating Fiona to SCUBA equipment so she wouldn’t be afraid of her safety divers during her first swim in the deeper outdoor pool. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced underwater and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career. Photo by Pat Story, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Now, after 17 years as a Dive Safety Officer, my mind needs more of a challenge and my body needs less of one. I wanted to upgrade my education and build on my professional experience. This is what lead me to pursue my Master’s in Education in Instructional Design and Technology, once again at the University of Cincinnati.

While I have spent a great deal of my career teaching divers, I have also learned a lot from them. I was fortunate to work with several divers who had physical or developmental disabilities. Due to the performance-based nature of dive skill assessments in general, I was open to see how these divers could accomplish tasks and perform skills in their own way. From them I learned a lot about maintaining consistency in my training and demonstrations, keeping my instruction precise, identifying my learners’ needs, and adapting my lessons to meet them. I am a big advocate of adapting teaching methods to meet the needs of all learners and of making the learning experience as inclusive as possible.

I am also a major advocate for safety. Working in the zoo and aquarium industry, I have seen occupational hazards including drowning, falls, amputation, electrocution, and debilitating repetitive injuries. I not only view occupational environments and tasks with a keen eye for potential hazards, but I am also adept with safety regulations and tenacious about the well-being of employees in hazardous industries.

Left side of picture shows a polar bear relaxing on exhibit. Words read "conditions not safe for diving." Right side of picture shows two divers sitting in front of the polar bear pool window while the polar bear plays underwater.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s polar bears holding up a maintenance dive. Photos by (left) Jen Meeks and (right) Marc Kuhnhein.

I have a passion for non-formal teaching that is fun, engaging, and effective. I use humor and stories to create emotional connections with my learners, whether I’m inspiring them to care, instilling good values and self-confidence, or ensuring they go home safe and sound at the end of the workday. My years as a scuba instructor have developed my ability to assess my learners’ physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. Spending a career working in unusual and potentially hazardous environments has given me a keen sense of safety awareness. My education has given me the foundation of pedagogical theory and the skills to develop quality instructional materials from analysis to evaluation that engage, educate and inspire my learning audience.

Jen taking a selfie with a scuba diver inside the Hippo pool.
Selfie with a volunteer diver in the Cincinnati Zoo’s Hippo pool.

Want to hear more stories?

Check out this episode of Cincinnati Zoo Tales to hear what it was like to have a hippo in my office.

© Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

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