George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Civil Engineering Students Serve Large, Charismatic Clients

March 30, 2016   /   by Martha Bushong

George Mason University engineering students observe elephants interacting with enrichment toys at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Designing an object to enrich the lives of six four-legged female clients who weigh as much as 10,000 lbs., can move at speeds of 30 mph, and are apt to eat 125 - 150 lbs. of food daily is an unusual class assignment for civil engineering students. 
When zookeepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington were looking for additional designs to consider for elephant enrichment, they contacted Liza Durant, acting chair of the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil Environmental and Infrastructure Engineering at the Volgenau School of Engineering.
The school had a connection with the zoo in alumna Paige Babel (BS '15). Babel studied civil engineering and environmental science at Mason, so when the conversation about enlisting the help of future engineers began, she immediately thought of the school.
 "We were looking for intellectually curious students and hoping for a structurally sound piece. We also knew that to build an enrichment object it would take a lot of outside knowledge about construction," said Babel. "Our Asian elephants have all kinds of objects in their space, but we thought the students might come up with ideas we hadn't thought about."
As part of the assignment, students from Durant's Environmental Engineering class visited the Elephant Community Center at the Zoo to meet the six elephants, observe their species-specific behaviors and ask the zookeepers pertinent questions. 
The students appreciated the information that the zookeepers shared and the insight they provided. "Being there with a particular assignment made me observe their behavior more closely," said Paula Young (BS '17). "I was surprised at their trunk dexterity and never thought about them not being able to see things that are above them. All of this will be good to know as we design our object."
For the next several weeks teams of four to six students will design an object that they think elephants will want to use or "play" with. At the end, the class will present their plans in hopes that the National Zoo will choose one or more of their designs for the elephants.
"There's no right or wrong answer to this assignment," said Durant. "It's more about how the teams approach the problem and what they develop. Maybe one of the objects or even more will be chosen. Whatever the outcome, I know the students are learning valuable engineering skills."