ElephanTOYtus project made in Jenna Frye's EPIC Fail class at MICA. Students designed a functional 800 lb toy for Elephants.


An 800 lb weeble-wobble toy made for the elephants at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. 2016
Digitally fabricated and hand finished; wood and steel. Photo credit: Jay Gould

Jenna Frye
We had an amazing design team: 
Fabrication consultants: Ryan McKibbin, Kevin Cook, and Pete Karis
Engineering consultant: Paul Mirel
Elephant consultant: Amanda Bobyack
Students: Kristen Brown, Albany Carlson, Amy Carlson, Omar Choudhury, Connor Davenport, Karl Ericksen, Anna Huff, Jessica LaFratta, Kariyma Murphy, AJ Oehm, Erin Rothback
Course: EPIC Fail

Notes about the class:

EPIC Fail has become a class where students learn to work on huge, impossible dreams and work their way through the discomfort of not knowing, the frustration of not being good at something right away and the satisfaction of realizing that by going for it and not giving up, you can accomplish so much more that you think you can at the beginning of the project. It’s ok to fail in our class. As I always say “Fail really means: First Attempt in Learning” I can’t help it. Everyone in my family is a teacher.

About our Awesome Project:

In this installment of my EPIC FAIL, we went super EPIC. EPIC EPIC. ELEPHANT EPIC. Through an exciting opportunity made available to use between MICA’s office of research and graduate studies and the Smithsonian National zoo, my students and I got to work on the EPIC challenge of designing and fabricating an actual toy for the 6 elephants at the National Zoo to enjoy. 

Our design challenge was to design a toy that could withstand the force and weight of an elephant, that would stimulate their critical thinking and fine motor skills and encourage collaboration between the elephants. 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 is: Umm..YES!

Because this was our first collaboration with the zoo, I made the decision to test the project within a course that was already established, and my EPIC fail class seemed oh so perfect for that. Ultimately, if we went all in and we were wrong about it, meh. Epic Fail. But that isn’t what happened at all.

I gave the students the design constraint of creating a “weeble-wobble” toy because the elephant’s already had human sized weeble toys that they enjoyed (and then destroyed, handedly). This presented quite the engineering challenge in the end.

We worked through an intuitive engineering process at first, testing 3d printed eggs with weights to see how to get a parabolic object to weeble but not fall down. We sent our design ideas to Amanda at the zoo for feedback and even got a chance to bring our physical prototypes to the zoo for input and a chance to study the environment the toy would live in. This was a great opportunity for our team to practice our design skills of empathy and observation in a real world context.

After several prototypes at a small scale, and reviewing our concepts with the zoo, it was time to scale up and get technical with the engineering and fabrication. We worked with Nasa engineer Paul Mirel to work through the problem notationally and with engineering software in order to make our best guess at fabrication protocol. 

We worked with Ryan McKibbin and Pete Karis in the dFab Lab and Metal shop respectively to digitally fabricate our pieces out of wood and steel. We then learned to use various woodworking skills to laminate, clamp, sand and seal our way to toy greatness and at the end had a huge, 800 pound weeble toy with a noise maker and a cone to stacking on. 

The toy does in fact weeble and wobble at it’s full scale and we enjoyed seeing the many ways the elephant’s played with the toy. I think everyone involved was impressed with us because we were actually able to deliver a fabricated product. 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 and learning from making. We learn many of the same things as engineers but our language and culture are different giving the false impression that designers and engineers don't have a lot in common. I haven't found that to be true. The more I work with "sciences" in general, the more I see the commonalities between our disciplines: we're both on a search for truth, we just have different pathways and draw different conclusions.

In the end I guess it’s true what they say: there’s nothing you can’t do when you work with the most talented students on the planet, with a world-class fabrication manager and a NASA engineer. What a cliche.