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Penguin Playrooms and Baboon Bedrooms

Zoo Program Gives Students the Drawing Board

One must think like a big cat when designing a tiger habitat. Where do you like to sleep and play? What keeps you safe? What keeps people safe while watching you? What keeps zookeepers safe in feeding you?

John Ball Zoo is a proud sponsor of SNN
John Ball Zoo is a proud sponsor of SNN

Discovery Elementary School students in the district’s gifted and talented program, PEAKS, considered the needs of lions and tigers and bears and other zoo animals recently while designing 3-D model exhibits for the new STEM class, Exhibit Design, a John Ball Zoo education program.

“You guys are going to be engineers,” said lead instructor Megan Burkhart, while passing out design kits with animal figurines, miniature structures and habitat pieces. The fourth-graders, working in groups, considered those who would be affected by their designs.

“We need to take into consideration the feelings of the keeper, the animals and the visitors,” student Madison Duffey said.

Alexander Grzesiak and Madison Duffey create a bear exhibit

New Tools to View Zoo

Burkhart said the class gives them new perspectives on what goes into design that meets the needs of all users. “When students come to the zoo and they are looking at exhibits, they don’t ultimately think about what went into the exhibit,” she said. “I love that it gives them the opportunity to engineer things themselves. As they go through the zoo after they’ve done all of this, it gives them a new appreciation and insights into all of the new exhibits.”

“Another goal is to show them the variety of jobs at the zoo. A lot of kids think the only job at the zoo is zoo-keeping, but there is a lot more we have here to offer; things they can ultimately do with their future,” Burkhart said

Fourth-grade science standards include animal adaptations, said teacher Joe Westra. The class, which involves biology and engineering, ties in well with new Michigan Science Standards. “Everything about this is consistent with best practice in science education,” he said.

Students said making a zoo habitat is harder than first appears.

“If takes a long time and a lot of hard work, and you can’t do it by yourself,” said Reign Baker about coming up with a design. “If the animals don’t have what they need, they cannot survive.”

From left, Owen van der Veen, M.J. Smith and Calvin Ranger work on putting components of a good habitat together

The zoo education program also offers the new STEM course, Penguineering, which challenges students to consider ideal habitats through the eyes of a Magellanic penguin and to create a nesting habitat.


John Ball Zoo STEM Education Programs

SNN Article: Spanish Immersion Students Visit the Zoo

Wildlife Careers

Article: Learn About Being a Zoo Habitat Designer

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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