- Sponsorship -

Fourth & fifth-graders share lessons from Species Explorers program

14-week cohort wraps up with presentations

Multiple districts — If decision-makers at John Ball Zoo need advice on how to improve animal habitats, they needn’t look far — students from the Species Explorers program at the Van Andel Institute for Education have plenty of ideas.

Over the past 14 weeks, fourth- and fifth-graders in the after-school cohort have been learning about the needs of zoo animals, from snowy owls to tigers. 

The fledgling zoologists got to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges during a recent evening of presentations to friends, family members, VAI educators and zoo representatives, including a panel composed of Megan Burkhart, assistant manager of school and youth programming at the zoo; Randi McIntyre of VAI and Samantha Walker of Blandford Nature Center.

“They’ve become science change-makers,” said Dawn McCotter, VAI curriculum instructor, of the excited students from Grand Rapids Public Schools, Forest Hills, Wyoming and beyond, who were waiting in the wings to talk about their findings.

All About Animals

The students spent the last few months preparing presentations on how to improve the zoo’s accommodations for pancake tortoises, snowy owls, red pandas, pygmy hippos and Amur tigers, and they couldn’t wait to talk about what they’d learned.

From left, Congress Elementary fourth-grader Maddox Carrill, North Park Montessori fourth-grader Ellie VanTassell and homeschool fifth-grader Jedediah Kubiza get an award after their Species Explorers presentation on pancake tortoises. Not pictured, but also part of the winning group, is Potter’s House fourth-grader Duriel Cohen II (courtesy)

“We’ve got four turtles right now,” said North Park Montessori Academy fourth-grader Ellie VanTassell as she pointed out the details of a diorama made by her group and peppered with toy tortoises to set the scene.

“We’ve got one right here, we’ve got one hidden in the rocks right here, and we’ve got one playing and one eating the food,” Ellie said emphatically. 

She took a breath and paused, then made a confession: “To be truthful, I really wanted the tigers but I’m happy to be helping the turtles.”

And then she got back to gesturing and narrating.

“We’ve got a pool right over here that they can go into if they want, and we’re going to have this little door they can open and get a special treat. … They can just, like, snap-snap,” Ellie said. “Then we’ve got this log going down into the ground. Then we’ve got a food bowl; we’ve got a cave; we’ve got hiding spots; we’ve got lights; we’ve got a fake cactus.”

When Ellie’s group concluded its presentation to the panel, one of the judges asked why they included a fake cactus.

Ellie answered matter-of-factly: “A fake cactus will cause less hurt than a real cactus.”

No argument there. In fact, Ellie’s group ended up taking home an award for best presentation.

But all the students delighted in sharing their projects with families and educators.

‘They’ve become science change-makers.’

— Dawn McCotter, VAI curriculum instructor

Collaboration & Creativity

Sylvie Von Maur, a fourth-grader from Forest Hills’ Ada Vista Elementary, enjoyed the artistic component of designing a habitat for snowy owls.

“I liked making this, and that, and that, and that,” Sylvie said, gesturing quickly around her diorama at fish bowls, miniature toy owls, trees and more. “It was pretty fun creating the habitat.” 

She said her group worked well together, too, despite what she called a “few bumps in the road.”

Ada Vista fourth-grader Javier Recio, whose group advocated for more hunting and playing equipment for the zoo’s Amur tigers, said he valued the knowledge gained as a result of the Species Explorers program.

“I learned a lot about animals and stuff,” he said. “I didn’t really know anything about animals, and I feel like it was really fun.”

Oliver Pritz, a fourth-grader from Vanguard Charter Academy, said the best part of the curriculum was the collaboration.

McCotter said the program helps students learn to think outside the box and use critical thinking to solve problems, while “putting their science knowledge to a purpose.”

The Species Explorers program is one of VAI’s Biodiversity & Human Health after-school cohorts. The institute also offers a Human Innovation cohort series, which explores how innovation improves human life.

Fall registration for the programs opens in June.

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Middle-schoolers empowered to be the most ‘Beautiful U’
Zoo School ‘stays exciting’ after first 50 years

- Sponsorship -
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU