Naimo Ali, 8, rushed to the glass, squeezing her head in between her classmates to catch a glimpse of the snow monkeys bounding through fresh snow.
Ali and her classmates spent the past week studying the snow monkey exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo as part of a challenge for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students to redesign the exhibit.
Third grade students from Echo Park Elementary School in Burnsville participated in a four-day zoo residency from Jan. 10 to Jan. 13, where they used their STEM skills to develop their own designs for the zoo’s outdated exhibit.
“They are learning what it takes to be an engineer,” said Kristi Berg, a STEM educator. “STEM is very present at the zoo.”
Echo Park became a magnet school this year. The zoo residency is part of its effort to develop “authentic learning” to help students become scientists and engineers, said Monica Foss, magnet coordinator at the school. Each grade level is connecting with local organizations to learn about STEM.
“What they are doing at the zoo is integrated back at school,” Foss said.
The magnet school received a $5,000 grant to pay for more than 100 of its third-graders to participate in the ZOOMS Design Challenge, where students strive to solve zoo exhibit challenges with design. This is the first time an elementary school has partnered with the zoo for a four-day residency. In the past, the zoo has held a two-day residency for Mounds Park Academy students. The zoo works with schoolteachers to customize a program that suits their classrooms.
The zoo is planning a major redesign of the snow monkey exhibit, which was first built in 1978 — a long, long time ago according to third-graders who were born around 2008. The exhibit needs repairs and the third-graders could have just the fix.
John Martin, 9, filled in his packet of questions about the snow monkeys at their exhibit on Tuesday. John suggested adding a cave, trees and bowls for the monkeys’ food.
“It needs to be rebuilt since it is getting old,” he said.
Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended a $17.8 million capital bonding zoo project that would include renovating the snow monkey exhibit.
Berg explained the shortcomings of the exhibit Monday as the students sat cross-legged on their winter jackets. The exhibit lacks a warming station, she noted, and during the winter the exhibit pool has to be drained because it is not heated.
“We want you to figure out how you can make it better,” Berg said.
Students broke into groups on Tuesday to visit various zoo exhibits and see what they could apply to the snow monkey exhibit, taking into account the monkeys’ natural habitat and behaviors.
After their residency, Echo Park students will return to their classrooms and design a blueprint and scale model of the snow monkey exhibit. The students will then present their projects to zoo staff and exhibit their designs at the school Jan. 27.
Jay Kaiser, a third-grade teacher at Echo Park, said he hopes his students gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to run a complex facility like the zoo.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” Kaiser said.