by Jim Boyle


Sixth graders at Zimmerman Middle School who were sent home last year to learn in the midst of a pandemic recently returned to school with a greater awareness and understanding of science and how it relates to animals out in the wild.

And for more than a dozen of those students, the staff at the Minnesota Zoo think so highly of them they have asked them to compete against other junior scientists around the state and beyond in hopes of creating a better life for a red panda named Min who calls the Apple Valley zoo home.

That news greeted the 174 middle school students in their first full week back to face-to-face learning. Zimmerman students were among 3,500 students across Minnesota and from as far away as Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii and Australia who took part in the zoo’s annual, award-winning ZOOMS Stem Design Challenge for students.

Zimmerman teacher Jessica Houle, of Princeton, has been on board with the 7-year-old program for the past four years, including this year’s, which was the Minnesota Zoo’s first attempt at running the entire project through distance learning.

This project challenges elementary, middle, and high school students to develop solutions for a real zoo-based scenario using creativity, math, science, and engineering skills. Teachers must take the initiative to sign up.

Zimmerman sixth grade students under the direction of teachers Houle and Amanda Plude looked forward to the program having heard from older students and siblings who had participated in it previously. This year’s contest had to be run differently in a pandemic.

“I was impressed with what they were able to come up with and generate for materials working on their own from their own houses,” Houle said. “Some kids excelled being able to have Google Meet conferences, and then work without distractions and go at their own pace.”

The ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge presented by Flint Hills Resources challenged students to develop a solution to a “real” problem faced by zookeepers and staff at the Minnesota Zoo.

They were tasked with designing an enrichment for an animal at the zoo through the use of science and math knowledge, creativity, problem solving, and research skills during the engineering design process in order to best solve the problem and present a solution.

Teachers like Houle and Plude received access to free supporting resources and ongoing support throughout the school year from zoo education staff.  

Normally, teachers guide their students through the whole engineering design process in a face-to-face setting, a process for them that starts with in-person teacher training at the zoo in the summer and includes a field trip with students to the zoo to check out the exhibits and sit in on a course. There, the students learn how they can design their exhibits and develop solutions through a real-life hands-on way to build a model. Students benefit from the behind-the-scenes look.

Afterward they head back to school full of visuals and information swirling in their heads and redesign an exhibit for a particular animal.

In a pandemic, students were asked instead to design an enrichment for the animal. Each student designed two on their own this year through distant learning, Houle said.

“It was pretty cool they were able to do hands-on things, do their research and building so they didn’t always have to looking at a computer screen,” Houle said.

Houle likes giving her students a chance to see how science (and STEM) is applied in real life.

“I think it’s an awesome opportunity to get excited about science and not just textbooks,” she said. “I want my students to be able to do something and see science in the real world and show them how important science is and how it’s around them.”

She also likes challenging them through competitions because students respond well to them. She still remembers a contest she competed in as a middle school student years ago. The veteran teacher grew up in Becker and took part in a school wetlands project at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. As a girl she always liked science and math, but once they were blended with the nature and the outdoors, she was in heaven.

“I thought it was awesome,” she said. “I loved how it connected to the real world.”

It’s still magical for her, especially when she sees her students light up the way she remembers lighting up.

She heard of the ZOOMS Challenge a few years ago from Kristi Berg, a STEM specialist at the Minnesota Zoo who was hired seven years ago and asked to take the program run with it.

Berg did just that.

The Shoreview area woman is a former science teacher who taught kids in sixth through eighth grade for seven years at Murray Middle School in the St. Paul School District. There they held one of the biggest science fairs in the state and she guided students who went on regional and state science fairs.

Still, nothing compares to the magic that happens when Berg took her classrooms outside of the school walls. She regularly brought inner-city kids to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, a place teachers in the Elk River Area School District have utilized for years. Bringing them out into “the middle of nowhere,” she said she was able to see them in a different way.

She’s now been at the Minnesota Zoo for seven years, and the highlight of her work is seeing students progress in the ZOOMS contest. Berg didn’t know what to expect when it had to be transitioned to a distant learning model.

Last year more than 100 teachers took part in the sixth annual contest, so when 70 teachers signed up this year she was pleasantly surprised. She was even more surprised by the effort the teachers and students put in.

“I didn’t expect teachers to take up anything extra other than just trying to get the basic standards into their classrooms,” Berg said. “But a lot of teachers have built this into their curriculum and said they wouldn’t miss it.”

It’s more than science curriculum, for sure. Houle said this year’s project dovetailed nicely with a lesson plan on having a growth mindset.

“It’s important to grow and learn and to challenge oneself,” Houle said. “Enrichments are important part of that. They build connections in the brain.”

She said some of her students reported trying out their enrichment ideas for the red panda Min on their own pets.

“I have an awesome group of sixth graders with really positive attitudes,” Houle said. “I think projects like this help them think through things creatively and helps them enjoy school.”

Houle and Plaude were notified March 18 that more than a dozen students were advancing. Most of them were back in class. At least four of them are still choosing a distance learning model, so Houle prepared a professional letter to be mailed to the homes of the distance learners.

Those students will either make a video to show the Minnesota Zoo judges what they came up with for their project, or they will make a presentation on a video conference call. The judging will take place the week of March 15. Winners will be announced on Friday, March 19.

Berg said the Minnesota Zoo has already won by connecting students to its mission of conservation and addressing threats to wildlife.

“Our work don’t stop because there is a pandemic,” she said.

It does have to pivot in the case of COVID-19 restrictions. That was not a problem. The ZOOMS Challenge still served its purpose.

“I got students connected to animals and nature in hopes they can see themselves in careers working with animals or in conservation and biology so they can help save populations,” Berg said.

Min will no doubt benefit from their efforts.

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