Build Week 9 began with an unusual sight: two yellow school buses parked outside of Long-View. The kids arrived bundled up for the sub-freezing weather and brimming with guesses about where the buses were headed. But the tight-lipped teachers weren’t about to let the cat out of the bag. Instead they ushered the kids inside to find the lanyards designating their team names.

Moxie, Peepers, Pogo, Karma, Curly, Chico...

The team names were about as uninformative as the teachers! Only when the kids disembarked the buses at the Austin Nature and Science Center did the meaning of the team names become clear. ANSC offers nature-related programs and services for Austinites, human and animal alike! One component of their work is to rescue injured, disabled, and imprinted animals who are unable to survive in the wild. As we visited these critters’ enclosures, each team discovered the meaning of their team name.

Moxie the bobcat was raised in a domestic setting and became imprinted, meaning that her instincts about humans are a little off-kilter (she thinks they’re other bobcats!). Peepers is a sizeable opossum, too old and blind to enjoy much upside-down time. Pogo is an imprinted raven. Karma is an old blind fox, and Curly and Chico are vultures whose wings were injured by cars as they feasted on roadside carrion.

These animals have a healthy home at ANSC, but as their keeper Alison Cook explained, life in an enclosure just isn’t quite the same as the wild. That’s why animals in captivity need enrichment toys to encourage natural behaviors like hunting, foraging, and climbing. Enrichment toys, however, are just like our own toys − we sometimes get bored with them and start hankering for new ones. That’s where our Build Week project came in. As each team met their animal client, they took notes on the animal’s behavior, the size and construction of its enclosure, and any disabilities that might affect its needs. Once back at Long-View, they would need this information to build an enrichment toy perfectly suited to their critter.

Back at Long-View, the kids were eager to start building, but before they could switch on their drills, they had to get their ducks in a row. Each design had to be approved by Alison from ANSC, who has an eagle eye for potentially dangerous design flaws. To earn her approval, each team drew up a sketch of their proposed enrichment toy and a justification for their design. This required a great deal of research on animal-safe materials and the natural behavior and needs of each species. Of course, the kids who’d taken detailed field notes were glad they had! Once Alison declared the designs to be animal-safe, it was time to build.

The next three days were set to the tune of a whirring drill press and several buzzing saws. While the kids hammered and drilled, the teachers scavenged like vultures for materials, stocking our makerspace with everything from PVC cutters to tricycle wheels to decommissioned fire hoses.

The chaos of construction rarely paused, but we did get to take a break on Day Two to meet with Tricia Dees, an animal husbandry expert who used to work at SeaWorld with Elina’s mom, Melissa Sarkar. Tricia taught us that there are three main things to think about when designing animal enrichment items − physical stimulation, mental engagement, and choice. She advised us to ask ourselves, “What does this animal do in the wild? What can we do to provide mental stimulation? What can we do to give them choice?” At SeaWorld, they constantly think about ways to enrich the animals’ lives by knowing the animals well and offering them choice-based toys and nature-simulating experiences designed to meet their individual needs. She even took time consulting with each group to give some feedback on our designs, sharing her expertise to help us better serve our own animal beneficiaries.

With Tricia’s tips in mind, the kids got back to work. By the end of Day Two, teams submitted proposals for Alison’s approval. These proposals included research-backed justifications for designs, a list of materials needed, as well as assembly diagrams. By the next day, nearly all of our teams received approval, and after feedback from Alison which involved making tweaks to plans, all of our teams got to work building.

Thus, Day Three was devoted to construction, and we enlisted the help of building enthusiast, Jim Barr Coleman (Gus and Poppy’s dad). He joined the ranks of our skilled building experts, Ms. McGrath and Mrs. Andersson, advising and helping teams cut materials and build safely. By the end of the day, nearly all of the designs had started transforming from diagrams on paper to taking shape into three-dimensional objects.

On Day Four, many teams arrived early to continue building and worked continuously while the hawk-eyed Building Integrity Review Committee inspected each build for structural soundness. Some builds were strong as an ox, but others wobbled under the pressure. Mid-morning, a team of writers, one or two representatives from each group, met with Mr. Weisz and Mrs. Morgan for a writing workshop devoted to learning how to craft display signage to inform a visitor to the animal’s enclosure about the goal and value of the enrichment item.

A few teams worked right through lunch on Day Four, fine-tuning their work to ensure that it was animal-safe. Finally, by the end of school on Thursday, we had a school full of sturdy custom-made enrichment toys. The builds included perches, swings, climbing structures, a fire-hose hammock, two wooden hideouts, and several puzzle feeders, including one for Karma the grey fox, with six mounted PVC tubes housing hidden treats. (Who says you can’t teach an old, blind dog new tricks?) One team even made a turf-covered bobcat tunnel that inspired several learners to crawl inside on their hands and knees, making bobcat sounds. We hope Moxie will agree that her new toy is the cat’s meow!

Our final day ended with a gallery walk, so the teams could admire and inquire about each other’s projects. Our young researchers and builders were eager to share what they had learned about the species they had studied, and to show off the design and construction skills they had developed. Some students used tools such as a drill, jigsaw, PVC cutter, or drill press for the first time. Those who aspire to careers in the natural sciences were particularly thrilled to have made connections with professionals in the field of animal husbandry! Most importantly, the kids were proud as peacocks of the impact their work would have on the animals at ANSC.

The next week, while the kids were away on Spring Break, the teachers loaded up their trucks and hauled the enrichment toys to ANSC. Alison and her team could not have been more grateful to receive these items, and they even invited us to continue working with them to keep their supply of enrichment toys fresh. We expect that quite a few Long-View kids will visit ANSC over the next weeks to see how the animals are taking to their new toys, and that we may see a few more enrichment objects coming out of our makerspace in the coming months. All in all, Build Week 9 was a roaring good time and an enriching experience for all!