EPIC Fun

This winter, the holiday season arrived a little early for Maharani, Swarna and Kamala­ — three of the six Asian elephants living at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo — thanks to MICA students who gifted the herd with a new enrichment toy designed and built over the course of the fall semester. Made possible through a collaboration between MICA and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s enrichment program, the 11 students enrolled in the College’s “EPIC Fail” course were asked to design a toy that would elicit elephants’ natural behaviors.

The program provides physically and mentally stimulating toys, activities and environments for all the Zoo’s animals. Through this program, animals have the opportunity to use their natural abilities and behaviors in new and exciting ways.

Jenna Frye ’05 (Rinehart School of Scuplture), faculty member in MICA’s Foundation Department, credits the team’s artistic approach to problem solving as the key to their design and delivery of the toy.

“One of the advantages of working through an artistic design process is that you start with intuition and support that learning with hands-on investigation. It’s a different kind of engineering that isn’t about theoretical constructs: it’s all about concrete applications. We learn many of the same things as engineers but we call what we learn very different things,” she said.

The goal was that the final object would stimulate the elephants’ critical thinking and fine motor skills and encourage collaboration among the animals. But the real challenge? Developing a toy that would withstand the force and weight of an elephant.

“Actually, the first thing I remember hearing about the project was ‘is anyone interested in making a toy to help elephants make friends?’ The correct answer to that question was YES,” Frye said.

Working with her students, who come from the Graphic Design and Interdisciplinary Sculpture programs, Frye oversaw the toy’s design and build at the College’s Digital Fabrication Lab.

The final product is a play on the familiar weeble-wobble design that was meant to simulate elephants pushing trees in the wild. The toy’s steel cone is designed to hold a series of tires that the elephants can add or remove­ — providing exercise and an incredible demonstration of strength as the object weighs around 800 pounds. There is also a sound component built into the cone structure that creates a “swooshing” sound when moved.

“Collaborative projects like this are a win-win on two levels,” said Curator of Elephants Tony Barthel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “First, the enrichment item designed by MICA students succeeded in eliciting the kinds of natural behaviors envisioned during the design process. Second, MICA students and faculty formed a connection to an endangered species while learning about Asian elephants and their behavior. The more people are familiar with a particular species, the more likely they are to want to help save that species.”

But the real magic, Fyre said, was watching Maharani, Swarna and Kamala interact with their new toy for the first time.

“I don’t know how to describe the pride I felt seeing elephants explore something my students and I made together. It was life changing.”

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