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Engineering students find solution for penguins' sore feet

A collaborative program between Northwestern and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is helping improve quality of life for zoo animals. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

By Kevin Tibbles, Correspondent, NBC News

The folks at Chicago's world renowned Shedd Aquarium had a penguin problem.

A penguin podiatry problem, to be exact.

After spending long, hard days hanging out on the rocks by the pool, many of the Shedd's tuxedoed residents had developed sore feet.

"As our birds age and get older...they get sore feet like we do," said Senior Director of Marine Mammals Lisa Takaki.


Instead of calling Dr. Scholl, the Shedd turned to the brilliant first-year engineering students at Northwestern University who are taking part in the schools' 'Design, Thinking and Communications' class.

Their task? To design special booties to help the penguins take a load off.

"My reaction was 'What?" said student Ritij Goel. "This is not engineering. This is arts and crafts!"

But, as it turned out, it was engineering.

"Everything in engineering boils down to problem solving," said student Olivia Gann.

In the eight years of the partnership the students have helped the Shedd out of all kinds of 'fishy' situations: from a delivery system that helps fish take their medicine during surgical procedures, to a decompression chamber that helps sea horses get rid of air bubbles under their skin. 

"How many people can say they worked on a fish anesthetic delivery system?" asked student Frank Cummins. "I can tell you. It's about four!"

It is all a perfect combination of deep sea, and deep thought. A great opportunity, too, said engineering professor Stacy Benjamin.

"Something they never thought of doing in engineering," she said. "To work with fish, as opposed to building a building."

As for the penguin boots? Well they are, of course, in Northwestern Purple; and student Karis Shang says they're more similar to a bandage than a bootie. "Like a Band-Aid for a penguin"

"We were developing, taking, engineering principals and applying them to a real life need that the Shedd had," said student Alison Bedell.

As for the Shedd? Lisa Takaki says "It was so simple and so perfect we said, 'Now why didn't we come up with that?!'"