Sunday, September 22, 2019

Honors College students create enrichment devices for elephants



(April 5, 2018) -- The San Antonio Zoo’s three elephants will soon get their trunks on some cool new tools. Freshmen in the UTSA Honors College proposed more than a dozen enrichment devices to the zoo in Fall 2017, and the zoo selected three of those designs to be developed and installed this semester.

UTSA students enrolled in the Honors College’s product launch course taught by Gold Hood, assistant research professor working with the UTSA Honors College and College of Engineering, participated in the project. To approach the challenge, they researched how elephants behave, interact, learn and stay active.

>> Engage in experiential learning opportunities at UTSA.

The students’ first interactive enrichment device is called the BABE. The concrete tree is designed to shower the elephants as they hit the device with their trunks. They designed the tree, which will also spray zoo visitors with water, to look similar to those found in an elephant’s natural habitat.

“Elephants are extremely intelligent so we had to design hidden compartments and secret buttons to aid in the enrichment process,” said Hood.

The second device, called a Foobil, is a modular, spinning mobile. The elephants will hit the modules to access hidden food.

Elephants will use their trunks to pull tires up and down the third enrichment device, called the Tire Tower. Designed like the classic children’s ring tower, it will allow the elephants to access food hidden inside the tires.

“It feels great to be able to design something that hopefully helps these animals learn and live great lives,” said Katherine Wofford, a freshman Honors College student. “I’m very excited to see how the elephants interact with the enrichment devices we created.”

Once the enrichment devices are installed in the zoo’s elephant habitat, the UTSA students will study the impact of the devices and how the elephants interact with them. They will also collect data to measure how effective the exhibit additions are and how they affect zoo visitors.

Experiential learning opportunities allow students to work on real-world projects to supplement their classroom learning. UTSA Honors College Dean Sean Kelly says the UTSA undergraduates who participated in the zoo project enjoyed seeing their blueprints come to life and helping with the construction and installation of the three enrichment devices.

“We want to provide experiential learning opportunities to our students, like this collaborative project with the San Antonio Zoo, so they learn the importance of showcasing their talents to solve challenges in our community,” said Kelly.

The UTSA Honors College enriches the lives of talented students through a rigorous academic curriculum and opportunities to participate in research and service-based learning. It also provides students with the chance to learn from and network with leaders in San Antonio’s culturally rich and innovative environment.

UTSA is ranked among the top four universities in the nation under 50 years old, according to Times Higher Education. 

- Kara Soria


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