What is the ultimate animal? Does it have wings, scales, gills, hooves? Two legs or four? Feathers or fur?

Lakes area students are aiming to answer that question as part of the Innovative Schools Project’s ultimate animal STEM project.

The Innovative Schools Project is a Sourcewell-funded program that serves schools in the Region Five district of Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

The goal of the project is to encourage and support the development of innovative schools across central Minnesota by matching donations that fund creative, innovative ideas for broadening students’ learning.

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Each year, Innovative Schools Project offers matching grants of up to $5,000 to every Region Five school district. The matching funds the districts raise for the grant program can be used on anything, but the money from the project is specifically for teacher grants, allowing for new, innovative materials and programs in the classroom.

This year, Innovative Schools Project staff wanted to do something different.

“I don’t know if I want to say it’s because of COVID, but it’s certainly changed things this year in school classrooms, and our board wanted to do something to make a big impact to support our Region Five classrooms,” project partner Lindsey Riffle said during a Zoom interview Feb. 4.

Kindergarten through third grade students at Region Five schools will participate in the Innovative Schools Project's ultimate animal project, using clay and cardboard to create the ultimate animal that can survive in as many environments as possible. The STEM project is a collaboration with the Minnesota Zoo. Submitted Photo
Kindergarten through third grade students at Region Five schools will participate in the Innovative Schools Project's ultimate animal project, using clay and cardboard to create the ultimate animal that can survive in as many environments as possible. The STEM project is a collaboration with the Minnesota Zoo. Submitted Photo

Out of that desire came the ultimate animal project, a collaboration with the Minnesota Zoo focusing on the STEM/STEAM areas of science, technology, engineering, art and math. Kindergarten through third grade classrooms at every Region Five school are invited to participate.

“The theme of the project revolves around the design thinking process,” Riffle said. “It’s a problem solving, critical thinking skill, and the process is something that can be utilized or applied across all the different subject areas. It’s not just a math or a science or an engineering skill.”

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Students are asked to think about animals’ external parts and determine which parts are best suited for ultimate survival in as many environments as possible. They’ll then make prototypes, with kindergartners and first graders using clay, and second and third graders using cardboard engineering kits.

“It teaches students a process, method and language for identifying a problem creating a solution or solutions that might not exist before, and then building a prototype that is tested and refined,” Riffle said.

Students will have access to educational resources from the Minnesota Zoo to help them along the way. A virtual exhibition will take place May 7, when students will be able to present their creations to Minnesota Zoo experts and receive feedback.

At the time of the year when students would normally be taking field trips but likely won’t be able to because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pillager Elementary School Principal Josh Smith is excited for his students to be able to have a virtual field trip of sorts.

“Anytime you can provide real life, authentic, outside of the box (learning) from your traditional projects and learning, students tend to really enjoy that and eat that up,” Smith said.

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With Pillager teachers already accustomed to thinking outside of the box and trying to incorporate STEM and STEAM skills into their regular lessons, Smith hopes this project will help further that objective even more.

“I’m confident this is going to be really, really beneficial. I’m just looking forward to seeing how it all comes together,” he said.

All kindergarten through third grade classrooms in Pillager will participate in the project, as will those at Eagle View Elementary School in Breezy Point.


“Where they go with it is really up to them, so that they see that other classmates have strengths that they didn’t realize, and that they can celebrate those with each other, and that they can talk about it and say, ‘Oh, here’s what I did, and here’s what I learned.'"

— Melissa Hesch, Eagle View Elementary School principal


“Typically Eagle View does science days, or the grade levels like to do thematic days to cover the standards,” Principal Melissa Hesch said. “Well, we can’t do that this year the way we would normally do it. So this is a great way for us to tap into those engineering standards that are a little harder to do and a little more fun to do, but with some support that will allow us to do it safely, too.”

Hesch said she likes that students will have the authentic audience of Minnesota Zoo experts to present their creations to, and that it will give them a chance to be creative.

“Where they go with it is really up to them, so that they see that other classmates have strengths that they didn’t realize, and that they can celebrate those with each other, and that they can talk about it and say, ‘Oh, here’s what I did, and here’s what I learned,’” she said.

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Independent thinking paired with learning from others is a critical skill students will likely use in the workforce later in life, Hesch said.

“It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s problem solving. It’s all of the pieces that we want to be doing with our students,” she added, noting she feels fortunate for this opportunity.

All necessary materials will be delivered straight to classrooms in April, so teachers won’t have to do much prep work, which was one of the project goals, Riffle said. And the cardboard engineering toolkits are supplies students will be able to creatively make use of on other projects later on as well.

“As a mom myself, I know that those times in my kids’ lives that they’ve come home from school and they’ve participated in an engaging activity that gave them the opportunity to think critically and be creative, that was the most fun they’ve ever had,” Riffle said. “... I’m excited about kids here in our community being able to have an opportunity like that, too.”

The ultimate animal project also highlights what kinds of things can happen when community partnerships are formed.

“The kids are who benefit from that, and that’s what’s really important,” Riffle said. “And there’s different ways to get behind schools. Of course we hope for school districts to receive financial donations and support for things, but then there’s also people who just have an expertise in some area, and being able to share that with a class or a school. … There’s just so much benefit that can come from these partnerships within the community.”



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.