Zoo Train Challenge – Conceptual Design Review

Teams participating in our challenge to design a replacement for the wooden water tower that services the Zoo’s steam locomotives presented their concepts at MSOE on Monday.  We have more than 65 students involved, representing ten teams from six high schools.  Given the number of students involved, we ran parallel sessions for the reviews, with each team presenting before a panel that included civil engineers from Excel and MSOE, experts in railroad history from The Center for Railway Photography & Art and the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (our partner in this effort), and the staff which maintain and operate the Zoo’s train.

We asked teams to cover, not only their designs, but how they organized their efforts, alternatives they considered, and where they need additional help.  Students from Elmbrook’s media program stepped up to record all of the presentations for students and teachers to review.

  • Elmbrook Launch Team 3

After a short break for lunch we pulled everyone back together for a recap session with all of the reviewers.  That provided an opportunity for the panelists to summarize what they saw in their session within a few broad themes.  One of the most interesting things for us was to see the different ways schools with larger groups organized their teams– by functional area of the tower, expertise of the team, member, or into smaller teams who would each produce a design concept.  We used the recap session to engage students and teachers in a discussion of how that worked and what it felt like over the course of the semester.

We’re pulling the teachers together next week for a debrief to guide adjustments we’ll want to make as we go into the detailed design phase next semester. That work will begin and end with visits to UWM– first, for a chance to play in UWM’s structures lab, and, on May 2nd, for the detailed design review where the review panelists will select an approach to be fabricated and installed.

We are very grateful to MSOE for hosting the event and working with us to get everything in place.  They provided a beautiful setting with the 4th floor conference area inside the Grohmann Tower.

The Journal Sentinel was also on hand to cover the event. You can find their write up here.

Zoo Train Challenge: Advisers & Mentors

Why Advisers and Mentors?

One of the goals of this initiative is to help schools and students build connections to individuals in the wider community that can not only help with the project, but help students understand what a career in industry may look like, and how they might get there.  We’re pulling together a team of Advisers and Mentors for this purpose, but will let schools decide how they can best make use of those resources.

Industry Advisers

Industry Advisers will either work with an individual teacher to support a school team, or join a pool of experts who can provide support for technical questions on an ad hoc basis.  We ask that advisers join us for a kick-off event at the Zoo, the conceptual design review in early December, and the detailed design review in April of 2020. Throughout the project, Learn Deep will meet monthly with teams from each school to hear what the team has been able to accomplish, what they’re struggling with, and how they plan to address those concerns.  We encourage Industry Advisers to attend at least one of these sessions each semester.

For this project, a civil, industrial, mechanical or environmental engineering background is a plus.

If you’d like to join the effort as an industry adviser, please let us know.

Near-Peer Mentors

We’re looking to connect our high school teams with engineering and construction students from partners in higher-ed– MSOE, UWM, Marquette, MATC, and WCTC.  We encourage near-peer mentors to attend the kick off and design review events.  We don’t expect near-peer mentors to travel to the school to which they are assigned.  Near-peer mentors will work out a preferred method of communication and frequency of interaction with their school team.

Zoo Train Challenge

What if Milwaukee area students designed and built a new steam locomotive for the Zoo?

Well, you can’t start by simply building a new steam engine, but you could prototype a process with a simpler project. We’re working with Coalition for Sustainable Rail, the Milwaukee County Zoo and partners from higher-ed and industry to develop a series of engineering challenges for area high schools.

Over the 2018-19 school year we had teams from 6 area high schools working to design a replacement for the wooden water tower that services the steam locomotive. Teams shared their design decisions and approach to the project at a conceptual design review hosted by MSOE in December, and moved on to detailed design in the spring semester. In May, UWM hosted a final design review where our team of reviewers from the Zoo, CSR, GRAEF, and CG Schmidt selected an approach to move forward with.  That design was the focus of a summer workshop at UWM to produce detailed design drawings.

Along the way, university and industry partners have stepped up to offer on-campus experiences to student teams that helped inform their designs.

This fall, additional schools are joining the effort to fabricate and assemble the components for the water tower and take on the next challenge, dealing with the awkward process now used to sift and load coal for the locomotives.

Who’s Involved


We’re working with a mix of city and suburban schools, including Bay View High School, Brown Deer High School, Carmen High School, Elmbrook’s Launch Program, Franklin High School, Menomonee Falls High School, Messmer High School, New Berlin’s High School, Obama High School,  We are delighted to have not only their participation but their support and ideas in developing the process.

Want to get your school involved?  Let us know.

Higher-ed Partners

We are grateful for the support of our higher-ed partners who are providing access to their expertise, facilities, and students to help our school teams.

Support the Initiative

Become an Adviser or Mentor

We’re putting together a pool of industry advisers from area firms and near-peer mentors from local universities to help student teams.  For details, look here.

Become a sponsor

We’re looking to cover roughly half the project costs through local funding.  If you’d like to help sponsor the project contact us and we can walk you through the options–  let us know.

Share your expertise

We’re working with other local partners to set up opportunities for schools to tap their expertise, through school based, or on-site workshops.  If you have an idea about how your company or organization might be able to help, let us know.