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A project worth monkeying around with

Zookeepers at the Minnesota Zoo constantly struggle with ways to keep their animals engaged and stimulated.

Lucky for the zoo, it turned to students at Bailey Elementary School for solutions

Fourth graders Charlea Enriquez, Ananya Rajesh and Sarah Rundquist, who are all part of the Gateway gifted-and-talented program, took first place in the ZooMS Design Challenge, which tasked students with designing an enrichment activity for the zoo's primates.

The three girls will have an opportunity to tour backstage at the zoo for taking first place.

The challenge

ZooMS, the latter part of which stands for math and science, allows students to develop a solution to a real problem faced by zookeepers and staff at the Minnesota Zoo.

The ZooMS Design Challenge is divided into enrichment and exhibit.

Bailey Elementary fourth grade teacher Jeff Clear required his Gateway students to participate in the ZooMS Design Challenge.

"(The challenge) fit well into the engineering design goals of our curriculum," Clear said. "It's a well-designed challenge as it emphasizes all aspects of the engineering process — research, idea creation, prototype building, evaluation and modification and then presentation."

For the enrichment challenge, the category in which Bailey participated, students were asked to come up with a design for a puzzle feeder for the primates in the Minnesota Zoo's Tropics Trail exhibit — colobus monkeys, cotton top and golden lion tamarins, De Brazza's monkeys, white-cheeked gibbons and ring-tailed lemurs.

A puzzle feeder is a great way for primates to stay engaged, mentally stimulated and happy, according to the Minnesota Zoo website.

Specific benefits include: animals in a stimulating environment have fewer physical problems, breed more successfully, are better parents and live longer; challenges and stimulation make animal life in captivity more normal and visitors are more likely to see natural behavior from behaviorally-enriched animals; and presenting food in a way that makes animals search, forage, climb, jump and cooperate, will stimulate them.

For the puzzle feeder challenge, the design needed to be safe to use by multiple primate species and easy to use by zoo staff, and also had to encourage natural behavior of the primates.

There were 28 projects in this category submitted from 11 different schools.

The project that Enriquez, Rajesh and Rundquist designed, "Canopy Peek A Food," features a hammock that has pockets, shaped like leaves, that hold food, so the primates will have to search for and lift up the leaves to get their food.

"Not all the pockets have food inside," Rajesh said, "and you can change which pockets have food."

The girls came up with the idea for a hammock after Enriquuez pushed Rundquist off of a swing.

"Charlea wanted to push Sarah off the swing, so she thought of doing that with primates, instead with a hammock," Rajesh said, "and then we just added onto it."

As part of the challenge, Enriquez, Rajesh and Rundquist had to not only come up with a design, but also construct a prototype and develop a presentation.

"It was fun to build it," Rajesh said, "because we don't get to build things every day."

Projects were then presented to a staff member from the Minnesota Zoo.

"I think Charlea, Sarah and Ananya did well because of their attention to detail," Clear said. "In both their prototype and display, they looked over everything carefully and made improvements where needed. More importantly, though, since the girls did all the work themselves, they were able to speak with confidence and knowledge about the project."

Rundquist and Rajesh said they are excited to get a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo. The girls will not only tour the penguin exhibit but also the kitchen at the Tropics Trail exhibit.

This is the second year in a row that a group of students from Bailey's Gateway program has placed first in the ZooMS Design Challenge.

Last year Bailey students designed an enrichment object that would help encourage sea otters' natural behaviors in their exhibit at the zoo.

"I think the benefits of the project is that it motivates the students with a real-world application of science," Clear said. "It helps foster teamwork and communication as the project is too big for one student to do by his or herself. It's also student driven — the choices the students make are their own."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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