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Southeast partners with Denver Zoo

How do we get kids to learn how to solve real-world problems from a young age? woman talking to group of kids


For Southeast Elementary, the answer to this question came through an after-school, problem-based learning project in partnership with the Denver Zoo that started in January 2023.


“Creating curiosity and letting students drive their own learning is one of the best things you can do for them. It is a fundamental skill for students to be able to research, problem solve, and explain what they are thinking and what they have learned,” said Mr. Kellison, Ms. Lewis, and Ms. Torres, the three Southeast Elementary teachers who led the project.


In this case, the fifteen K-5 students participating in this project decided to focus on the endangered species of the Boreal toads. The Boreal toads are most commonly found in the Southern Rocky Mountains and are currently dying due to an emerging amphibian disease, chytrid fungus. Biologists estimate there are only 800 adult toads left in the state. young boy talking


The Denver Zoo has been working together with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to breed boreal toads and release their offspring into the wild, but they needed the students’ help to come up with solutions on how to monitor the toads’ habitat, identify future sites for reintroduction, and locate unknown populations of this species.


“We work with a different school each semester to get students involved in our conservation work and give them the opportunity to provide real solutions to real-world problems,” said Emmy Peterson, Denver Zoo representative. “We believe that input from students and other community members can lead to multiple, viable solutions in saving the toads.”


Over the course of a few months, Southeast students met with the Denver Zoo to learn more about the problem the toads are facing, built background knowledge on life cycles, ecosystems, water, and even met with fungus experts from Colorado State University.girl showing object to two women


“We learned a lot about how the toads breathe through their skin and how the fungus can kill them since it’s on their skin. I liked building our design because I learned a lot about what the toads eat,” said second-grader Elizabeth Schlatter. 


Students quickly got to work coming up with solutions and building prototypes outlining the process of their chosen solution. After finishing their prototypes, the students went to the zoo to present their solutions and received feedback on how to make improvements. After making these improvements, the Denver Zoo, parents, and community members came to the school to hear what they had come up with.


“I really liked how we were able to work in a team. We listened to each other’s ideas to come up with a design that would actually help the toads,” said fourth-grader Brooklyn Williams. two girls presenting


The students’ solutions included a website where people could document toad populations they come across in the wild and a process for disinfecting shoes in toad habitats so that the toads could be protected from the fungus, which can be carried on shoes that humans wear.


Experiences like this show students the true purpose of learning–applying knowledge to the real world and using it to make the places we inhabit better.