See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


When you're not just a destination but a resource like the Minnesota Zoo, your mission is to address a need in your community. Our mission is to connect people, animals and the natural world to save wildlife. When our mission makes a difference for students, it makes our jobs extra rewarding.

So, what do kids need right now? I think they need purpose, a sense of belonging and life-changing experiences. And we at the zoo are proud to help fill these needs with the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge.

The ZOOMS program, presented by Flint Hills Resources, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It's a yearlong, award-winning program pioneered by the Minnesota Zoo that challenges elementary, middle and high school students to develop solutions to real, zoo-based problems. Using science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts, students work in groups to design and present solutions at the zoo. In March, the top student groups will come to the zoo to showcase their designs to Minnesota Zoo staff and professional engineers from Flint Hills Resources.

This year's competition gives students the opportunity to redesign our bison and prairie dog exhibits or design group-based enrichments (think objects or opportunities that help animals express their natural behaviors) for the animals in the new spaces. The popular bison and prairie dog habitats are visible from our new Treetop Trail — the world's longest elevated pedestrian loop.

Since the program started, 775 teachers from 434 schools in 12 states and two countries have helped 33,000 students produce more than 10,000 projects. It started at one school in 2014, and this year the program is reaching 68 schools. The program has enjoyed immense growth because it works. The students tell the teachers they love it, and the teachers tell the zoo to keep going. We are proud to help teachers do their jobs better. Schools can't do everything on their own, and we want to do everything we can to help them deliver meaningful experiences to students.

Our young people today have a lot of challenges. Technology is wonderful in so many ways, but it can also deter kids from building healthy relationships or discovering their passions. That is why I believe the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge fits a critical need in our world. At the ZOOMS exhibition each March, I walk around the zoo and see kids presenting, designing and exploring real world problems. I see students building peer-to-peer relationships guided by teamwork. I see them activating their creative minds to benefit the world around them. Maybe these students are finding a place where they belong. Maybe they're finding inspiration for a future career.

The ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge is an example of successful collaboration on so many levels. Flint Hills Resources provides support. The Minnesota Zoo provides resources and expertise. The teachers provide guidance. The students drive us to keep going.

Many people don't know that the Minnesota Zoo is our state's largest environmental education destination. The ZOOMS program is a huge part of that, and we're proud to have done it for a whole decade. I encourage you to come to the ZOOMS exhibition at the Minnesota Zoo this March 5-7 to see the student projects, but most important, to see the excitement on their faces. It's a life-changing experience.

John Frawley is the director of the Minnesota Zoo and president of the Minnesota Zoo Foundation.