Toy Design... for Elephants

MICA students students accept challenge to design toy for Asian elephants at the National Zoo.

Over the fall 2016 semester, students at MICA sought to answer this question: how big does a “weeble-wobble” have to be to withstand the strength of six female Asian elephants? Collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s animal care team, they designed and built an enrichment toy that would help the elephants use their natural behaviors in a new and different way.

In the wild, Asian elephants use their massive bodies to fell trees and their dexterous trunks to move logs. To replicate the heft and weight of wood, the students added a steel cone to the center of the toy. The cone can hold up to three tires (depending on the tire size), and elephants can add or remove tires as they see fit. When tires are added, the weeble-wobble can weigh up to a whopping 800 pounds!

In addition to providing the elephants an outlet for physical exercise, the toy also engages their visual, tactile and auditory senses. A sound component within the cone creates a “swooshing” noise when the elephants move the enrichment.

 “Collaborative projects like this are a win-win on two levels,” said Tony Barthel, curator of Elephant Trails. “First, the enrichment item designed by MICA 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.”

Jenna Frye, professor in MICA's First Year Experience Department, credits the student 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 a 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 elephant's critical thinking and fine motor skills and encourage collaboration between the animals. But the real challenge? Developing a toy that would withstand the force and weight of an elephant.

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.

But the real magic, she said, was watching Asian elephants 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."