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A colony of African penguins

Mystic Aquarium / Cheryl E. Miller

Education

Students' Enrichment Ideas Inspire Real-Life Items for African Penguins

May 9, 2024

Shared Interest & Understanding Enrichment

What do the African penguin care team at Mystic Aquarium and a class of 1st-grade students from Georgia have in common? They’re both interested in enrichment for African penguins!

Wondering exactly what “enrichment” for penguins is? Well, you could ask the students in Dawn Aschberger’s STEM Exploratory class at Georgia’s Museum School of Avondale Estates. That’s because for the past few years, she’s been teaching her students about African penguins and the items they use to stimulate their bodies and minds.

But let’s back up for a moment first and talk about animal enrichment in general. Enrichment is an important factor when it comes to an animal’s well-being while under professional care. In the wild, animals spend much of their time hunting for food, protecting themselves against predators, building shelters, and finding mates. Under professional care in zoos and aquariums, animals don’t have to focus on these things. Enrichment engages animals in activities that stimulate natural behaviors, and can help animals develop social skills, practice natural behaviors, and even have a little fun!

Designing Enrichment for African Penguins

Although Aschberger has been teaching her students about the physical needs of animals for a while, “This year I decided to push the project one step further with Design Thinking and added an empathy piece,” she said. “I wanted students to think about animals in a habitat and how we can keep not only their bodies safe and healthy, but their minds too. I wanted students to think about how animals can be kept happy in a zoo or aquarium environment, which led me to start learning about animal enrichment.”

Animal care staff need to know what kind of enrichment will benefit the animals under their care. To achieve this, they have to learn about the animal's behavior, habitat, diet, and how they perceive their environment. In this case, Aschberger's students learned about African penguins. They studied their behavior by watching live-stream footage of them from Georgia Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium's YouTube video "A Day in the Life of a Penguin Trainer." Aschberger herself researched African penguins and animal enrichment to help the students start thinking about ways to engage them. She provided them with some materials to get them started and challenged them to create enrichment items that would stimulate as many senses as possible.

The students researched African penguins and discovered that they have color vision, are attracted to shiny things, and have a good sense of hearing. They came up with various ideas to stimulate the penguins, such as using bells, different textures, colors, and reflective materials. However, they also considered the safety of the penguins and their trainers. To prevent the penguins from accidentally eating the bells, they put them in containers and hung the enrichment items on strings to avoid the penguins pecking at the trainers' hands. The students put a lot of care and thought into their creations, ensuring that they were both stimulating and safe for the penguins.

From Inspiration to Impact

Learning about enrichment and designing items for animals is a great feeling, but what's even more thrilling is to know if those items will actually work. Mystic Aquarium played an important role in this regard. When Aschberger approached the aquarium for feedback on how the kids' enrichment items matched up with what might actually be used, Tracy Camp, the Assistant Curator of penguins, was overjoyed to help. She said, "The kids wanted feedback on their designs, but we wanted to see their designs in real-life application." To get a closer look, Camp requested Aschberger to send her the student projects. She even showed them to the penguins through underwater viewing windows to gauge their interest. The penguins were intrigued by the items, which thrilled everyone involved.

 

That’s when Camp decided to take it one step further and use the projects to serve as inspiration for some real enrichment items for the African penguins. Camp challenged two college students completing an internship at the aquarium to use the students’ ideas to create new enrichment items for the African penguins.

Ryan Carr and Sarah Miller, both University of Rhode Island Animal Science majors, used penguin-safe materials to incorporate elements from the students’ projects into items the penguins could interact with.

“They had a lot of wonderful ideas,” said Ryan. “Especially with things that dangle, are colorful, are shiny, and also things that make noise.”

Sarah added, “A lot of the kids had ideas about designing something we could hold up high so we could avoid the risk of the penguins biting us. And we wanted to make it super colorful and add a noise component as well.”

“These enrichment items are now being used regularly with the colony of African penguins, and they’re a big hit!” noted Camp.

The Joy of Collaboration

Camp didn’t take on this project just for the benefit of the penguins. Inspiring kids and making connections between their ideas and reality is something that Camp says is her favorite part of the job. "From first grade to college, these kids will make a huge difference in the world if we continue to feed their passion, knowledge and creativity. I saw this project as a perfect example of that."

And how do the students feel about their ideas being used in real life? Here’s what Aschberger told us about their reactions. “They were so excited! Their faces when they watched the video from Mystic Aquarium showing the penguins the new items they inspired were precious. This collaboration gave these kids a chance to see how their thoughts, their creativity, can become something bigger than a project in their classroom. It gave them a chance to see that what they do here in Georgia can have an impact somewhere else in the world. I think it opened their eyes to the possibility of just how far they can go.”

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