NEW BEDFORD - The Buttonwood Park Zoo has received a major contribution towards its efforts to transform an existing structure in the zoo into a more educational space.

The zoo is expected to break ground later this year on a Nature Connection Education Center, which will be housed in the zoo's barn in the northwest corner of the zoo. Bristol County Savings Bank donated $300,000 on Thursday to the project.

Carrie Hawthorne, Education Curator at the zoo, says the zoo is in dire need of more educational programs. She says with as many as 12,000 students visiting the zoo on field trips each year, the zoo only has room for about 5,000 students to take part in educational programming that the zoo offers.

"Of those 7,000 that are coming through for a general field trip with no program, I can honestly say they are requesting programs, we just can't offer them at this time," said Hawthorne. "That's why this program and the support of everybody is really crucial."

The funds generated will make possible the renovation of the "Buttonwood Farm" barn, which will divide the existing space into two barn-themed classrooms on the first floor and an additional classroom and event space on the second floor.

Zoo Director Keith Lovett tells WBSM News though the barn will be able to host students in a classroom setting, it will still be able to serve as a barn.

"But we're really going to turn it into a modern facility that not only is going to be able to help us with our education programs, filling them to capacity that we already have with our programs, but is also going to be a center focused on science where people, not only from the community but from around the country, can come to learn so much about threatened and endangered species," said Lovett.

The total cost of the project comes in at about $1.2 million. Lovett says the zoo has raised about 75% of those funds, and the City Council is expected to allocate funding through the Capital Improvement Program within the next few weeks.

The zoo is expected to break ground on the renovation in the fall of 2018.