Bethel Alum Blends Love of Science and Education at Minnesota Zoo

Kristi Berg ’07 loves animals, science, and teaching kids. And she’s able to blend all those loves as the STEM education specialist at the Minnesota Zoo. She leads the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge, which uses the zoo’s animals and exhibits to spur students’ creativity and problem-solving in the classroom.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

June 06, 2022 | 10 a.m.

Kristi Berg ’07

Minnesota Zoo STEM Education Specialist Kristi Berg ’07 meets with students at a school as part of the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge. Photos were provided by Kristi Berg and the Minnesota Zoo.

When Kristi Berg ’07 is working on educational curriculum to help students learn about animals, she loves that she can walk out of her office and see tigers, sea otters, and the other animals at the Minnesota Zoo. “This is kind of my dream job,” she says. Like many, Berg remembers dreaming of working with animals as a child. But Berg admits she had no idea what her dream job would look like. Take that love of animals, her interest in life sciences, and her passion for teaching and you get her job. Berg is looking ahead to kicking off her ninth year as STEM education specialist at the Minnesota Zoo. The role perfectly fits her, and it allows her to work with children who are eager to learn about animals. “They’re just easy to get engaged because they love it too,” she says. “You don’t need to work as hard to grab their attention as they are just so excited about animals.”

Berg’s love of the sciences and education traces back to her time at Bethel University, which was an easy choice for Berg as the alma mater of her grandpa, grandma, mom, two uncles, and brother. But Bethel is also known for its strong education and science programs, and Berg merged the two by earning an elementary education degree with a science emphasis. She enjoyed her education and science classes, especially biology, and she was struck by the network of Twin Cities teachers who prefer working with Bethel students as student teachers. In fact, Berg was a student-teacher at Murray Middle School in St. Paul and then taught science there for seven years.

While at Murray, Berg participated in a grant program that helped her gain STEM training to become more familiar and comfortable with STEM curriculums. Shortly after, she pursued the new position of STEM education specialist at the Minnesota Zoo. The position was rare for zoos at the time, but the zoo was looking to use its animals to help children engage in problem-solving activities. With the help of donors, ZOOMS, or Zoo Math and Science, was born. Berg got the job and would help launch the program.
Minnesota Zoo

Kristi Berg ’07 loves that her work at the Minnesota Zoo inspires young people into action for conservation efforts. One student, for example, sold buttons to classmates and donated the money on behalf of the zoo’s tigers.

While Berg helps tours, field trips, and other education efforts at the zoo, she spends much of her time designing zoo classes and the ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge. Each school year, Berg picks a zoo animal as the challenge’s focus. This past year, it was the zoo’s wolves. “That’s the part I really love about my job: getting to go deep and to learn about the animals and the threats they’re facing and try to figure out how to get teachers on board to be experts to share with their students,” she says. Students from across Minnesota and—especially during the pandemic—from around the world participate in the challenge. Students use their science and math knowledge to develop solutions to a problem faced by zookeepers and zoo staff. ZOOMS allows the zoo to teach STEM in an engaging way using the animals, wildlife, and conservation.

Berg is pleased that ZOOMS shows that STEM—a broad education term for science, technology, engineering, and math—is about more than robotics and machines. Students worked to design a new exhibit or enrichment for the wolves, which required them to research wolves and conservation efforts. Students aimed to design something that encourages natural behaviors, so they have to learn a lot about wolves—how high they can jump, if they’re good diggers, their sense of smell. “They’re getting the full picture of wolves,” Berg says. Berg and zoo staff visited Minnesota schools over the winter to work with students on their projects, providing tips and evaluating how ideas would work in a real-life zoo.

Minnesota Zoo

The 2021-22 ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge focused on the Minnesota Zoo’s wolves, and next school year’s challenge will focus on the zoo’s endangered Malayan tapirs.

Another goal is for students to build empathy for wildlife, and Berg says students learn the animals’ names and about their daily lives at the zoo. It helps show that zoos are not just for entertainment; they are conservation organizations, and Berg says her programming reflects that mission. She says zoos are often one of the few places where endangered animals can flourish and eventually replenish a species’ population in the wild. “These are endangered animals that are acting as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild,” Berg says. And many animals find homes at the zoo when they may not survive in the wild. The zoo’s wolves, for example, came to the zoo after being orphaned in a wildfire, and the sea otters also came to the zoo as orphans. Berg has seen the zoo’s programs have a big effect on students as they inspire them to act for wildlife and conservation efforts. A few years ago, a student sold buttons to classmates and donated the money to the zoo on behalf of the zoo’s tigers. “Those are the stories I love, when a kid gets so excited and inspired,” she says.

The ZOOMS challenge is also meant to inspire children with the same dreams Berg had as a child—to work with animals. ZOOMS and other zoo programming help children see themselves in careers at the zoo—careers that stretch beyond playing with animals. Berg highlights zoo careers from animal vets to zoo keepers, life support technicians, and many more. Unfortunately for some children, Berg admits a zoo career isn’t about playing with the animals. Zookeepers and staff do a lot of data collection, food prep, cleanup, and it requires time-intensive training. They also work to give the animals choices as they aim to build relationships with them. Through the challenge, Berg highlights how zoo careers require creativity and problem solving as the zoo cares for a wide range of very different animals—from small birds to large grizzly bears, along with native and exotic animals. Some are very well researched, while others have very little research on them. It’s crucial for the zoo to monitor the health and welfare of animals, but they have to be creative. For example, sedation masks are largely only mass produced for dogs, cats, and farm animals, so the zoo has to design and build masks to sedate exotic animals like a toucan.

While Berg and the zoo are still working to reimagine programming after the pandemic, the mission continues. Field trips were able to return to the zoo this school year, and the 2021-22 ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge ended in March with an exhibition of top projects at the zoo. Berg is already looking ahead to next year’s project which will be based on the zoo’s endangered Malayan tapirs.

Minnesota Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo’s three grizzly bears are some of the centerpieces of the Grizzly Coast trail.

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