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UC Engineers Create Xylophone for Elephants

UC civil engineers team up with the Cincinnati Zoo to design and build a xylophone for an elephant enrichment project.

Date: 5/16/2018 8:00:00 AM
By: Brandon Pytel
Phone: (513) 556-4686
Photos By: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

UC ingot  
Two students kneel with wooden music box in the foreground and elephant in the background.
University of Cincinnati engineering student Ernesto Infante, left, was lead designer of a xylophone for elephants, an animal-enrichment project with the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

When you think of civil engineering, you probably think of roads, bridges or tunnels – not elephants.

Engineering students with the University of Cincinnati recently paired up with the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on an animal enrichment project. The task: to create a working xylophone for elephants.

“When you have animals in captivity, it’s important to provide enrichment to keep their mind stimulated,” says Ernesto Infante (civil engineering ’18), design lead on the project.

For the last several months, Infante and other members of UC's student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers have met on weekends to create a working xylophone for elephants to play with, especially during the colder months when elephants are stuck inside.

Creating a working xylophone for elephants is a task easier said than done.

“This has probably been the most complicated box I’ve ever built,” says Infante.

The box, which weighs roughly 40 pounds, operates using two bells and a paddle design. The elephant can use its trunk to push the paddle, which hits one of the bells within the box. Infante compares it to a light switch.

But it’s not that simple. Infante and others realized early on that they must enclose the box. If they didn’t enclose it, the elephants could easily damage the box every time they used it. Additionally, since the elephant’s safety was a top priority, Infante and the team had to ensure they covered any exposed wire or rope. All of these adjustments limited the amount of sound the box could produce.

The zoo's elephant house presented another problem. The exhibit has high ceilings and concrete walls, which significantly muffles any noise the box produces.

The team and the zoo plan to address this problem by drafting a hybrid design that incorporates a digital percussion pad into the model. The zoo staff can load this percussion pad with different types of sounds and to control the volume.

To solve other problems the team encountered, Infante pulled from his experience in UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) and on his cooperative education (co-op) rotations.

“CEAS taught us problem solving,” says Infante, “and co-op taught us that things are always changing.”

The project also let Infante explore two of his passions: carpentry and mechanics. He enjoyed the hands-on work that the project demanded.

In the future, the Cincinnati Zoo and CEAS hope to create a class centered on animal-enrichment projects. This would create a credit-based incentive for students and expand the amount of projects CEAS students could work on each year.

Infante and the team have tested the prototype with the elephants and are making final modifications. Though the box has been more complicated than expected, Infante hopes the hard work will pay off in the end. When it does, the elephants at the Cincinnati Zoo will surely appreciate it.