MN Zoo STEM Challenge finalists - 2023

Lions, tigers and tapirs, oh my! The annual Minnesota Zoo Enrichment Design Competition challenges students to research and design a prototype that will help solve a current problem for zookeepers. This year, the chosen animal is likely unfamiliar to most – the “tapir” from Malaysia.  

Most visitors at the zoo expect to see animal kingdom favorites – species of big cats, bears, monkeys, and reptiles – but what about those lesser-known animals like the Malaysian tapir? The fact that not many people know about the tapir is ultimately what set fourth graders in the gifted services program at Park Terrace, Centerview and Woodcrest Spanish Immersion on this design quest.

“The animal sort of looks like an anteater/pig combination,” explains Monty, fourth grader at Woodcrest. “It has a larger nose because of its sense of smell.”

Monty now knows these facts (among many others) from extensive research with his teammates, Eva and Fiona. Their team, which is moving forward in the challenge with the Minnesota Zoo, was formed at random by drawing names out of a hat. The team quickly identified their strengths to contribute to their group project. Eva has a love of writing. She led research for the team.

"Tapirs are considered a keystone species, meaning the entire ecosystem would change entirely without them. They help biodiversity in the rainforest," says Eva, sharing a few research nuggets.

They also learned the tapir lives in the Malaysian rainforest and is currently an endangered species with only about 2,500 left in the world. The Minnesota Zoo currently has three tapirs.

“Students are solving for what might make it more interesting for zoo visitors to stay at the exhibit and observe tapir behaviors for longer stretches of time,” says Jan Burda, K-4 gifted services specialist. Jan has been working directly with the students and guiding them through the process.

Woodcrest team Monty, Eva and Fiona recognized that they had to struggle through some ideas that didn’t work in order to reach their best final product. Eva says they challenged one another and were successful because they all agreed on the approach. Fiona says that Eva and Monty were, “great partners because of how hard they worked.”

The team sketched many prototypes before landing on their final design, which they decided was the perfect size and shape. It’s a collection of tightly sealed bottles with holes in the cylinders, tapping into the tapir’s sense of smell that helps them forage for food (palm fruit) in the wild. The idea is that there would be multiples of these in the enclosure so the animals would stay alert and move around.

For the first round of the competition, the team submitted their project to the judges at the Minnesota Zoo as a slideshow presentation. They were selected to move on to the next phase of the contest. They continue to refine their design and will submit a final video presentation that will be reviewed and scored against other submissions from across Minnesota this month.

The winners of this challenge receive a one-year family membership to the Minnesota Zoo along with other recognition. The chosen design will create a real impact. The zoo’s engineers will build the final, chosen project for the tapirs to use in the future.

Check out the design work in the photo album

Minnesota Zoo Enrichment Design Challenge 2023