If you’re going to design an otter habitat and otters won’t or can’t comment, your next best bet might be to go to sixth-graders.
That’s what John Ball Zoo did. Nearly 200 Central Woodlands ⅚ students worked in teams to research and develop plans for what they saw as an ideal renovated otter exhibit at the Northwest Grand Rapids zoo.
What they came up with was 39 team-created exhibits with features that ranged from underground, underwater viewing areas; to wheelchair-accessible visitor observation towers; to a clear tube slide for the playful mammals to show off their skills and still be able to see and be seen in their surroundings.
The pilot project, which grew out of a three-year partnership teacher Patty Tolly had had with the zoo, got a boost via a $600 grant from the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation that made it possible for students to attend the inaugural design process class at the zoo. A $1,000 destination innovation grant gave teachers the time to meet with zoo officials and plan the project.
Students began in November by visiting exhibits at the zoo — particularly the otter exhibit — then returned to school and researched the needs of otters, zookeepers and visitors. Next, groups of three or four students made scale drawings and, from those, 3-D models of their proposed habitats, as well as supporting research papers and design calculations such as ideal land-to-water ratios.
All told, the project involved seven Central Woodlands teachers: Tolly, Stephanie Cionca, Darin Lillie, Diane Peneycad, Christel Homrich, Deb Elsholz and Tim Jaspers. Make that eight, and make it multi-grade: Diane Hartig’s clay and sculpture class at Northern Hills Middle School made clay otters to scale for the 3-D models.
“This has not been your ordinary classwork,” Tolly said. “It took a lot of coordination to keep this on students’ minds for as long as we did. It truly turned out better than I could have imagined.”
On May 22, a dozen groups selected by their classmates as finalists presented their projects in front of a panel of eight judges that included school staff, district Superintendent Dan Behm and two officials from the zoo.
Group No. 3 — Natalie Hedger, Faith Hubbard, Hannah Levering and Hayden Myers — included “otter spotters,” which Hannah said would allow visitors telescope-like views.
Group No. 7 — Jiya Patel, Saniya Mishra, Ashley Schenck and Ellory Zietz — included a live prey feeding tube that would shoot food from the zookeepers’ room directly into the water, a la the kind that pneumatically whisks away your paycheck at the bank drive-through.
Group No. 11 — comprising Hayden Bolter, Alex Korff, Bennet Nieuwkoop and Ashtyn Scarlato — led with the theme music from “Mission: Impossible.”
“The chances are pretty good of them seeing elements of their designs in the finished exhibit,” said Rhiannon Mulligan, education program manager at the zoo, who was one of the judges. “Beyond that, this has just been a great opportunity for them to model what we do, to think about things the way we think about them.”
Mulligan said the zoo will host professional development for teachers this summer who are interested in learning how to integrate the zoo into classroom projects.
“The idea is that each year we’ll give them a different, real-world problem for students to work on,” she said.
The top exhibits also were presented by students May 23 during the Groundswell Student Showcase at Celebration! Cinema North, and to zoo visitors on May 31. Tolley also received a grant from Groundswell to pay for busing and supplies.