Anne Lee: A great way for students to explore

19March 2021

If you’ve ever helped a student through dizzying grammar homework or overheard a virtual learning session on the lattice multiplication method, you know that learning can be rigid. For certain concepts, students are taught to use one method to arrive at the correct answer or solve a problem. I see it with my own sons – ages 6 and 8 – all the time. I tell them that truly great ideas most often come from people thinking outside the box.

While teaching students a process is helpful in building skills and confidence, there’s no one way to a right answer in the real world. As an environmental engineer at Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend refinery, I’ve realized in the field that conventional methods don’t always create the best answers. We can’t innovate if we’re relying on traditional thinking. That’s why I love helping students flex their creative problem-solving muscles through real-life STEM learning, like the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge at the Minnesota Zoo.

Each year, the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge presents a real zoo-based scenario for young learners to solve – from building a new habitat to providing enrichment for young moose to designing safe activities for visually impaired Hawaiian Monk Seals in Discovery Bay. This yearlong project puts STEM skills to the test as student teams spend more than 30 hours creating 3D models, determining measurements, drawing blueprints, calculating area and volume measurements, and more. This week, the Minnesota Zoo will announce the top teams and winning solutions in this year’s challenge to provide enrichment recommendations for Min the red panda.

As a judge of student projects for the past two years, I’ve been so impressed by the students’ ability to walk us through the challenge, articulate their decision-making process and share how they’ve arrived at a particular solution to meet the challenge goals. It’s exactly the type of thinking we will need in the next generation of engineers. Flint Hills Resources sponsors this program and encourages me to be a volunteer judge because the company values programs that spark STEM interest in young students. The more creative problem solvers we can inspire, the better our world will be in the future.

The Minnesota Zoo is a great place for students to explore STEM because of their natural curiosity and interest in animals. Through programs like ZOOMS, we can foster an early interest in STEM and build problem-solving skills, particularly for young girls and students of color who are so needed in our field. In my own experience, it was the science enrichment programs through the University of Iowa that led me to a career in engineering where I get to solve new challenges every day. Through ZOOMS, we’re building the foundation for a lifetime of STEM learning and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it.

Anne Lee lives in St. Paul

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