Cincinnati Zoo Partners with UC on Innovative Class

University of Cincinnati students and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden embarked on a once in a lifetime project—designing toys for the animals.

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

The project was through an honors class sponsored by UC Forward, an initiative that encourages students to apply their knowledge to support local organizations. The goal is for students to take their education beyond the walls of a classroom, and collaborating on projects with outside partners (non-profit and private sector) make this initiative possible. 

So, when the Cincinnati Zoo was looking for ways to stimulate and engage some of their animals, they turned to the students at UC to develop innovative solutions.  

“Often our partners want something that is a bit outside the box,” said Frank Russell, director of UC Forward and an associate professor, who taught the honors class.

The Zoo was in the search of interactive feeders, puzzle boxes, and other ways to spark curiosity and activity in its animals.

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

“Enrichment is absolutely important to all the animals at the zoo,” said Cody Sowers, senior aviculturist at the zoo. “We want to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.”

The UC students rose to the challenge. Multi-discipline groups consisted of students from a variety of majors, such as communications, biology, design, accounting and aerospace engineering. 

“Bringing those different disciplines together is an important part of its success,” said Russell.

The project was beneficial and considered a success by both the students and the Zoo.

“I think it’s fantastic. I’m really stoked. I think it’s such a cool experience for keepers and zoo staff and for the students themselves,” said Sowers.

UC Forward students designed puzzles for animals such as giraffes, penguins, rhinoceros hornbill birds, and tigers. To complete the project, they brainstormed ideas, developed mock-ups, drafted budgets, ordered materials and built their inventions for the different animal habitats, all while sticking to a specific timeline.

For example, one team built a browse box for the giraffes. The Plexiglass box is scattered with holes and filled with wiffle balls. The objective of the box is to challenge giraffes to use their tongues to reach the prizes inside—leafy greens, grains or biscuits.

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

Image courtesy of the University of Cincinnati

A member of the giraffe project, College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning student Lara Koenick said, “That was one of the best things about being a designer—seeing an idea through completion and watching it succeed.”

The semester-long class is a perfect example of partnerships between Uptown’s anchor institutions that leverage the institutions’ talent—in this case, students—to create innovative solutions to new challenges.

For more information about the partnership, visit