Elementary students embark on

Amy Olson

The sound of childrens’ voices filled the laboratory as 15 elementary schoolers craned their necks to see Chirp the chinchilla cradled in teacher Kendra Hunding’s arms.
The children are part of a group of 45 elementary school students from across the metropolitan area who are studying animals this week at Zoology Camp on the St. Paul Campus. This is the first year the Science Museum of Minnesota and the University’s College of Biological Sciences have hosted the day-camp, designed to introduce the youngsters to the anatomy and behaviors of animals from cows to insects.
Chinchillas are members of the rodent family native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Once hunted for its soft, gray fur to make coats, the animal is still an endangered species, said Hunding, who is an instructor at the Science Museum.
Hunding’s students studied Chirp’s behavior as well as the behaviors of rabbits, ferrets, gerbils and hamsters to make comparisons between predator and prey animals.
As Hunding held Chirp for her budding zoologists to see, she told them to watch the chinchilla’s long whiskers when she stopped talking. While Hunding talked, Chirp’s nose and whiskers moved rapidly. Once she stopped speaking, Chirp’s whiskers ceased to move.
As her students clamored with questions like “Why did he do that?” Chirp’s nose began to move again. Hunding explained that chinchillas have sensory cells at the base of their whiskers much like the cells that detect sound in mammals’ ears. Hunding showed her students how the chinchilla’s behavior would protect it from predators in the wild.
The students recorded data for each animal, noting the animals’ body shape, weight and length in addition to behaviors, such as jumping or walking. Each of the animals’ behaviors indicated whether the animals were shy or curious; by comparing the animals’ characteristics, the students determined which animals would be predators and which would be prey.
The students also watched a veterinarian dissect a cow heart, took a tour of the large animal veterinary hospital and made models of hearts and lungs. But the highlight of camp for 11-year-old Aaron, whose last name was withheld, was a hands-on tour of a live cow’s digestive system.
“Today we get to stick our hands in a cow’s stomach,” Aaron said, referring to the fistulated cow that had an opening in its stomach to allow the students to see inside. “That’s right after lunch,” he added.
His 12-year-old friend Matt, whose last name was withheld, said he liked seeing all the animals and examining fossilized bones under a microscope.
Each day, the campers attend three classes with a break for games and lunch. The students are divided into three groups and assigned a counselor who leads the students to each class and helps the instructor.
Christina Schroepfer, a freshman at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., has worked as a Science Museum camp counselor for two years. Schroepfer, who intends to major in biology, said her work with children makes her job more interesting than most summer employment.
“It’s a lot better than standing at a cash register,” Schroepfer said.
Zoology Camp is one of 33 week-long camps the Science Museum runs each summer. Neil Spencer, the camp’s coordinator, said the zoology camp will serve as a prototype for a longer three-week camp next year.