WOODBURY, Minn. -- If sea otters are happier in the future, they might have Colleen Redmond’s class to thank for it.

Her fourth-graders at Bailey Elementary in Woodbury joined a new competition called the ZooMS Design Challenge, which asks students to deal with real-life problems faced by zookeepers.

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The mission for the first year was to improve the lives of sea otters - and her class and students at Cottage Grove Middle School rose to the challenge.

Students in Redmond’s gifted-and-talented class worked on their inventions during the winter, and the semifinalists presented their findings in March at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

Redmond said the experience made the students more aware of the scientific process and the value of research. The students just said it was fun.

The team of Vardaan Gupta, 10, and Rachel Estvold, 9, began by studying a video of otters, in which they noticed the animals could break clams open by hitting them on rocks.

Would otters mimic that behavior to break open other things?

They wanted to find out. So they got to work.

“We started with cat toys from Petco,” Rachel said. They split apart the rigid plastic balls in the toys, then proposed to put otter food inside, along with small foam balls for the otters to play with. Rachel said the possibilities for food would include clams and “gingerbread fish.”

She and Vardaan hoped otters would see what was inside of the balls and enjoy breaking them open - as they did with clams.

In the same classroom, a group of girls built a prototype of a vessel to take otters on cruises. “It was amazing,” said team member Lauren Lee, 9.

The foot-long prototype has a tube protruding from the deck, through which food would be poured. Otters would then eat the food through portholes on the side.

Another tube would accept toys, which the otters would reach through the same portholes.

When done, the otters could lounge on a specially built sundeck. “It would have Astroturf or something comfy on it,” said Maggie Gessner, 10.

A group of boys who were semifinalists in the competition created the exotically named “Feeder Box 747X.”

“I came up with “Feeder Box,” said Kaushik Bukkuri, 9.

“I came up with the X,” said Srinath Hariharan, 10. “We thought that sounded cool.”

The Feeder Box 747X is a stack of boxes with a plunger running down the middle. A ball is on top of the plunger, which the otter pokes when hungry. The movement of the plunger releases food near the bottom of the box.

Kenneth Chen, 10, displayed his rejected ideas, which were just as creative as his final project.

His first idea was an otter toy called a “texture ball.” On the surface would be textures mimicking the feel of objects familiar to otters - clams, seaweed and rocks.

Another was a simple four-piece jigsaw with the picture of a clam.

Another was a bubble machine that would help otters stay warm. Sea otters splash water to make tiny bubbles, which become lodged in their fur for insulation - just the way that air pockets help insulate a down-filled jacket.

Kenneth’s invention would have produced the bubbles, but he nixed the idea. “It’s probably better for them to just groom themselves,” he said.

He finally settled on a toy: a plastic ball to be pulled underwater with a string. Otters would chase the ball, then break it open to find other toys and food.

Kenneth said this would address the No. 1 issue for caged otters: boredom. “They are always looking for something new,” he said.

The Bailey Elementary class enjoyed making the presentations - and the accompanying little burst of publicity.

“This is my first time being interviewed,” said Vivian Ginsbach, 10, speaking to a reporter, “and I love it.”

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.