ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge
Exhibition Week

Presented by Flint Hills Resources

March 4-8, 2024

The ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge offers students in grades 3-12 a chance to develop a solution to a real problem faced by zookeepers and staff at the Minnesota Zoo. This year, students were challenged to apply their science and math knowledge, creativity, and problem-solving skills to engineer an innovative enrichment or exhibit design solution for the Minnesota Zoo’s bison and black-tailed prairie dogs.

Of the 5200+ students that developed over 1520 enrichment and exhibit design solutions, only 134 projects were selected to give students the opportunity to present their design solutions to Zoo staff and Flint Hills Resources engineers during the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge Exhibition week.

Best of luck to all ZOOMS student engineer presenters!

ZOOMS Design Challenge Exhibition Awards

Virtual Awards

Middle/High School Awards

Elementary Enrichment Awards

Elementary Exhibit Awards

Welcome to the ZOOMS Design Challenge Exhibition!

A special message from John Frawley, Director of the Minnesota Zoo & President of the Minnesota Zoo Foundation.

A special message from Geoff Glasrud, Vice President and Manufacturing Manager, Flint Hills Pine Bend Refinery

ZOOMS Exhibition Week Schedule

March 4

Virtual Exhibition Day
Virtual Judging
9:30 am – 2:30 pm
Awards announced Friday!

March 5

Middle School and High School Exhibition at the Zoo
Awards Ceremony
1:45pm -2:15pm

March 6

Elementary Enrichment Design Exhibition at the Zoo
Awards Ceremony
1:45pm -2:15pm

March 7

Elementary Exhibit Design Exhibition at the Zoo
Awards Ceremony
1:45pm -2:15pm

March 8

Virtual and In Person ZOOMS Exhibition Award Winners announced on website

Student Project Gallery

Check out the innovative enrichment and exhibit design ideas that students developed for the Minnesota Zoo’s Bison and Prairie Dogs this year!

Elementary Schools

Middle Schools

High Schools

ZOOMS Exhibition Participating Schools

Elementary (Grades 3-5)

All Saints Academy
Avail Academy
Baker Place Elementary
Burnside Elementary
Carondelet Catholic School
Cedar Park STEM School
Cedar Ridge Elementary
Concord Elementary
Copper Canyon Elementary
DaVinci Academy
Eastview Elementary
Eden Lake Elementary
Forest Hills Elementary
Friends School of Minnesota
Garlough Environmental Magnet School
Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School
Highlands Elementary
Highwood Hills
Holy Spirit School
Independence Elementary STEM School
Maranatha Christian Academy
Oak Crest Elementary
Overland Elementary
Prairie View Elementary
Shannon Park Elementary
St. Jude of the Lake
Valley Crossing Elementary
Woodland Elementary

Middle School (Grades 6-8)

Carondelet Catholic School
Cottage Grove Middle School
Century Middle School
Davinci Academy
Friends School of Minnesota
Highland Park Middle School
New Richmond Middle School
St. Jude of the Lake
Zimmerman Middle School

High School (Grades 9-12)

Cretin-Derham Hall
Visitation School
School of Environmental Studies
SPPS Online High School

About the ZOOMS Design Challenge

Exhibit Design Challenge

In the summer of 2023, the old monorail circuit was transformed into the new Tree Top Trail. While this trail winds throughout many of the outdoor spaces at the Zoo, one portion of the trail will bump out to provide a new viewing perspective of the grassland prairie animals featuring the American Bison and Black-tailed prairie dog habitats.

As Zoo leaders continue to imagine spaces to help better connect people to the natural world to save wildlife as part of their Pathway to Nature Masterplan, this section of the Treetop trail section now brings the bison and prairie dog habitats into focus for potential upgrades. With the fluctuating numbers of the Zoo’s Bison numbers as part of our partnership with the DNR management of the Minnesota Bison Conservation herd, and prairie dogs living behind the scenes while the habitat undergoes modifications, staff are hoping to see these spaces enhance zookeepers, animal, and visitor needs while highlighting our prairie conservation work with these species, including prairie butterflies which are bred and raised behind the scenes.

Enrichment Design Challenge

A portion of the Northern Trail features a variety of prairie grassland animals that live in fluctuating social groups, including the American bison herd and Black-tailed prairie dog colony. The Zoo currently has 7 bison: 1 adult male Brutus and 3 adult females Bea, Betty, and Green (and her calf Yoshi). A new adult and calf also arrived in winter 2023. The prairie dog colony is made up of 14 prairie dogs that are currently living behind the scenes awaiting an upgrade to their habitat. While Zookeepers already consider individual animal needs, they have the added challenge of accounting for the social dynamics of the group when both planning and introducing new enrichments. Northern Trail staff are looking for new and innovative ways to provide safe group-based enrichment that encourages natural behaviors while ensuring each member of the social group can benefit.

Meet The Minnesota Zoo’s Bison and Prairie Dogs


Stats: Male, Born May 2012 in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Father of all calves born with the Zoo’s females.

Personality:Leader of the bison herd
Tends to let Green take the lead unless a stressful situation occurs, then stands on outskirts of huddle in protection.
Most motivated by food and treats to approach the fence with Zookeepers
Sometimes will push a female first when he doesn’t want to approach (‘all bark no bite’)


Stats: Female, Born May 2012; Came from Minnesota DNR
Mother to Yoshi (spring 2023 born)

Lead cow of the herd and always keeping watch. All bison follow her lead unless a “scary” situation occurs and Brutus takes over.
ex: tarp flapping in the wind, two Zookeepers instead of one.
Chases other females away to get food first.
Will be the first to approach if there are treats or Zookeepers.
Bold and comfortable with staff
Described as too smart to care. Is often interested, but not easily convinced to respond to Zookeepers.


Stats: Female, Born October 11, 2018, at Oxbow Park Zoo (MN)
Nicknamed ‘Betty White’ after the actress from the Golden Girls TV show

Best friends with Bea – stay close to eat other
Very comfortable with the staff
Described as friendly and calm
Generally more relaxed towards the zookeepers


Stats: Female, Born May 12, 2017, at Oxbow Park Zoo (MN)
Came with ‘Betty White’ to Zoo at the same time – named after Bea from the Golden Girls TV show

Best friends with Betty and follows her around
Very shy, lowest ranking bison female and gets pushed around more
Babysitter of the calves while other females are grazing
Only approaches the fence if Green isn’t bossing her around
Less social than other bison
Doesn’t like to be close to Zookeepers by herself
Last to shift in and out

Prairie Dog Colony

Stats: Unknown
With the planned renovation of the habitat, all prairie dogs have been transferred to other Zoos with plans for a new colony of prairie dogs to come to the Minnesota Zoo later in 2024.

Species Personality:
• They are very active and social. Prairie dogs are often seen communicating with their family and other family groups in their colony.
Very food motivated and they like to chew on everything, including hay, grasses, seeds, greens, and herbivore pellets.
Always on high alert! This means they are hesitant with new items in exhibit. They take a long time to warm up to new enrichment or changes in the habitat.

Bison Preferences

Favorite Food:
Alfalfa cubes and leaf eater biscuits are used as training rewards

Favorite Resting Location:
Resting along the back fence or under the trees near the pond.

Favorite Activities:
Wallowing (see video), grazing, tossing around enrichment, rubbing on trees and browse. Wading into the pond to cool down or standing under a mister.

Favorite Enrichments:
• Trees, browse, branches, and rubbing on Christmas Trees
• Toys with a purpose (puzzle feeders are good!)
• Large objects they can toss around, like boomer balls.

Least Favorite Enrichments
• Toys without a purpose – balls are boring to them.
• They are suspicious of anything new. Green or Brutus must inspect before interacting.
• Anything with a flappy and quick unexpected movement is too scary (like a tarp flying in the wind)

Saving Wildlife

Bison in the Wild

Bison are largest land mammal in North America. Females can weigh around 1200 lbs. while bulls can wight 2000+ lbs. grow to be 6 ft. at the shoulder and 10 ft. long! They are herbivores that spend nearly 11 hours a day grazing in prairies throughout sections of North America. That eat up to 15 lbs. a day!

They are social animals and live in herds that can vary seasonally from 20 in winter to 1000 during breeding season. Older females that serve as the leaders. They are also deceivingly agile and have been known to jump over 5 feet and run up to 35 mph. During hot summers, they wade into rivers and lakes and are known to be strong swimmers.

They also are considered a keystone species, helping their ecosystems stay healthy. While foraging, their grazing, trampling, and defecating helps keep prairie ecosystems healthy. They have also been called ecosystem engineers from their wallowing depressions that create shelter, nesting sites, and sources of drinking water from rain for other creatures.

Bison also hold significant meaning for many Tribal Communities in North America who depended on these animals for food, shelter and many other uses. This close relationship was nearly severed upon European colonization and its legacy continues today.

Bison Conservation

Learn more about bison and hear how the Minnesota Zoo is working to improve bison genetics through the Bison Conservation herd program!

Plains bison have ranged across North America for many centuries, once numbering in the tens of millions. Unfortunately, bison were hunted to near extinction by European settlers in the nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, it is estimated that as few as 500 individuals remained.

Due to conservation efforts, there are now an estimated 20,000 plains bison in conservation herds and an additional 420,000 managed commercially. During this population comeback, domestic cattle were allowed to interbreed with many of the protected herds, impacting their appearance and potential adaptability. It is estimated that less than one percent of the world’s remaining American plains bison have tested free of cattle genes.

The Minnesota Zoo has collaborated with the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd and conserve the American plains bison throughout the state. A joint herd of American plains bison that has tested largely free of cattle genes is being managed cooperatively at Blue Mounds State Park, Minneopa State Park, Oxbow Park & Zollman Zoo, Spring Lake Park Reserve and at the Minnesota Zoo. Minnesota Zoo staff coordinate the genetic testing and pedigree tracking of the bison and work with our partners to ensure the health and long-term viability of the herd.

How Can You Help?

Support Indigenous lead Eco-Tourism and Conservation efforts to restore prairies and return bison to native lands.

Help restore prairies near you by helping to plant native prairie plants to support pollinators, restore your soil, and save water!
Respect bison and prairie dogs in their natural habitat. Give them space and keep a safe distance!
Celebrate National Bison Day on November 2, 2024 or National Prairie Day on June 1, 2024 this year! Plan a way to help spread awareness in your community by educating your family, neighbors, and friends about the importance of conserving and restoring prairies throughout the state to help prairie dogs and bison.

At Home Activities

Check out the variety of fun activities that kids can explore at home to learn more about bison and prairie dogs!

Engineer a Prairie Dog Burrow! Whether you have pillows and blankets to build your own prairie dog burrow, or you want to draw your perfect burrow blueprints, what would include if you were a prairie dog?

What is Exhibit Design?

Zoos are frequently welcoming new animals, whether it be in a brand-new exhibit or in an existing one. Whatever the case may be, the zoo exhibit designer’s job is to design the best environment for the animals as well as the keepers and the visitors. 

Designing an exhibit starts by researching the animal’s natural environment to learn all they can about the animal’s habitat, including the plants, climate, and topography. Research might also include a consideration of the animal’s behavior, such as how much space it needs, if it climbs, jumps, or swims, and how strong it is.

Working cooperatively with curators, zookeepers, educators, artists, engineers, and many others, exhibit designers must also consider the needs of the keepers, through creating functional and easy to clean spaces, and the visitors, by creating exhibits that are educational, interactive, and deliver an important message about conservation. Balancing these needs in one design is a difficult job with many differing opinions and constraints!

What is Enrichment?

Animals in zoos do not have the same opportunities for physical and mental stimulation that wild animals do, so zookeepers provide the animals with objects or changes to their environment that will stimulate the behaviors of healthy wild animals.

Enrichment gives animals something to think about, encourages exercise, and gives animals a degree of control of their environment by giving them choices. Basically, enrichment helps keep life interesting and challenging.

Enrichment can come in a variety of forms including environmental, novelty, sensory (scent and sound), behavioral training, dietary, and social.

• Providing live and artificial plants for shade and barriers
• Using trees, ropes, or rock work to increase and enhance living space
• Using puzzle feeders that offer a challenging method of obtaining food
• Housing a variety of compatible animals from the same habitat together
• Applying scents (spices, food, animal-lure, dung) around an exhibit
• Simulating or using real prey items in predator exhibits to encourage stalk-and-chase behaviors
• Playing predator or prey sounds to encourage instinctive responses

Check out the videos below of our animals having fun with enrichment!

Virtual Minnesota Zoo Visit

Explore the Minnesota Zoo virtually through videos of fun animal encounters, zookeeper talks, and take a peek behind the scenes to stay connected with our animals and staff!

Join the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge, presented by Flint Hills Resources, next school year!

If you are a grade 3-12 teacher looking for ways to engage your students in authentic integrated STEM, join the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge presented by Flint Hills Resources next school year! Participation is completely free! Teachers will receive access to a free training, design challenge supporting curriculum resources for both in person an digital learning formats, and ongoing implementation support throughout the school year from Zoo education staff. Registration will open for the 2024-2025 school year this spring.

If you missed out this year, follow us on Minnesota Zoo for Educators Facebook Page and sign up for the MNZOOEDU Times to be notified when registration opens and to hear about the latest Zoo education news and events for educators.

Visit mnzoo.org

Copyright 2024, Minnesota Zoo | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy
13000 Zoo Boulevard, Apple Valley, MN 55124. Phone: 952.431.9200, 1.800.366.7811