Animal enrichment project host, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, engages Columbia Crest middle schoolers

Gathering at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park last Tuesday, Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy middle-schoolers presented their animal enrichment projects to park curators.

Students expressed excitement about the project during questions before presentation. One student stated she loved working with real-life animals and not just having a project on paper.

“I wanted to do something within the Eatonville School District that’s going to allow the kids to have real life, real world projects that they’re working on,” said Jessica Moore, Education Curator at Northwest Trek, in an interview with The Dispatch.

This is Columbia Crest’s second year incorporating the project into their STEM program.

Diligently working over several weeks, students experience multidisciplinary lessons through the project. Students research, design and write. Engineering, constructing, presenting and advertising are included components.

The project provides an opportunity for students to learn about animals, the importance of enrichment and how that applies in the wild, says Moore.

In February, Moore taught a class about animal enrichment to the students during school. She discussed the five types of animal enrichment: social, food, environment, senses and manipulation with toys, puzzles and sounds. Moore ensured students understood that the goal of enrichment is to encourage natural behavior while stimulating animal’s brains.

Moore forces students to think about what an animal is going to need.

“You need to learn about the animal’s natural history [and] you need to learn about the individual animal’s personal history,” Moore said. “You need to think about, ‘are there multiple animals using it or one?’”

If they are diggers, you need to give them something to dig in, says Moore. If they are climbers, give them something to climb, she added.

One of the biggest problems about animals in human care, says Moore, is that they become bored. They’re not mentally challenged because they are given everything.

“They need something to keep them physically and mentally active,” Moore said. “So that’s what the enrichment is.”

After Moore’s class, the students visited Northwest Trek to learn more about the animals. Students visited river otters, racoons, lynx, wolverines and ducks for project design ideas.

The students learned about the animals’ behavior, special needs and personal history. Most of the animals at Northwest Trek are rehabilitated and have disabilities that must be accounted for during the design process.

Proceeding the field trip, students returned to class, were placed into groups and assigned a specific animal. Around 12 groups were assigned.

Drawing and designing the projects happened in Richard Wind’s science and alternative learning class. Wind joined Columbia Crest this year after three years teaching at Eatonville High School. 

Once the project designs concluded, students submitted them to Mark Heinzman, the zoological curator at Northwest Trek, for feedback. Heinzman gave feedback about things that worked great, wouldn’t work, parts that could be changed and why. Heinzman stressed animal safety as part of the redesign process.

Construction began in Robyn Johnson’s class. Johnson teaches K-5 science, 5th grade ESL and middle school STEM. The enrichment project joined a variety of hands-on experiences Johnson has provided the students. Johnson has helped the students build an arcade of homemade air-hockey stations, basket-ball hoops, etc. Students are currently designing a video game and learning code.

Carl Hehemann, English teacher and head of the Hands-on-Health project at Columbia Crest was “the man behind the saw” says Johnson. Hehemann was paramount to last year’s enrichment project and is the only teacher whom participated for the second year in a row.

The students will soon rejoin Hehemann for the writing and advertisement portion of their enrichment projects.

Following construction, the students revisited Northwest Trek for presentation of their projects. Heinzman gave additional feedback and discussed potential risks of some projects.

“Even if the keeper staff don’t use the items exactly as they were intended, it creates ideas,” Moore said. “All of this makes the life better for our animals which is the purpose.”

Moore noted that a set of fresh, young eyes, provides incredible creativity, new prospective and ideas. She stated, “Sometimes, it’s like wow! I would have never thought of that.”

New to this year’s program, students made additional enrichment projects after their presentations. The materials were provided by Northwest Trek staff. Providing easy 30-minute enrichment projects gives students an idea of how simple enrichment can be, says Moore.

“To me this is about connecting them with the environment, to connect people through our animals with the world around them,” Moore said. “I want these kids to see that they can learn about animals and that’s great but this all applies to the animals around them.”

Protecting the environment ensures animals have the necessary resources in nature for enrichment without human involvement.

“This even transfers to protecting natural resources by leaving wild animals in the wild,” Moore said. “And giving them the opportunity to have what they need in the wild and we’re all stewards of that.”

The curators chose from the array of projects some to showcase. Students witnessed the bobcat, raccoons and badgers playing and eating from puzzle-feeders they had made. After the excitement, the students went back to school.

The middle schoolers at Columbia Crest will be wrapping up their projects through an advertisement assignment in Hehemann’s English class.

Moore expressed gratitude for Columbia Crest allowing her to host the experience and praised Mr. Hehemann’s involvement.

“I love that Columbia Crest is giving us this opportunity to work with them,” Moore said. “Mr. Hehemann was just crazy last year. He was like ‘this is so amazing and such a great opportunity!’ I’m excited to have teachers who are excited to do it. I think it’s a great opportunity [too].”

Other Eatonville district schools haven’t worked out so well. One teacher at Eatonville high had previously held an annual animal observation project and another at Eatonville middle school held an annual habitat restoration project; however, both teachers have retired and new teachers have hesitated continuing the projects.

Moore is hopeful that will soon change.

Wild was scheduled to present the enrichment projects at Columbia Crest’s “A-STEM showcase” on April 22, but was confirmed by Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy principle, Allison Shew, on Sunday by e-mail, that the showcase will be delayed due to the coronavirus school shutdowns issued by Governor Inslee.


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