Virginia Tech senior construction engineering and management and building construction majors in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction spent fall semester collaborating with students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment to develop proposals to upgrade and expand four animal exhibits at the Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, Virginia, as a design/build capstone course project.

The zoo, a non-profit organization, may use the proposals created by the class to solicit donations to implement elements of the designs, said Chriss Davies-Ross, president of the board of directors of Mill Mountain Zoo.

The interdisciplinary initiative was launched in spring 2014 when students in a senior capstone course on conservation biology in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation identified the potential to improve the design of certain animal exhibits at the zoo in order to better educate the public on the importance of the zoo animals for survival of the same species in the wild.

As part of their own capstone project to enhance education related to species survival plans at the zoo, the group of students connected their instructor, Associate Professor Sarah Karpanty, with Robin Lentz, interim executive director of the zoo, and Christine Fiori, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and lead instructor for the construction capstone course.

After brainstorming the collaborative project over the summer, Fiori, Karpanty, and Lenz launched the construction students on the project this fall. Given the unique challenges of this design project, the students were mentored by Lentz, Karpanty, and eight current students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, in addition to Fiori.

For the students, the project allowed them to hone proposal and presentation skills they will need once they graduate while they give back to the community by helping the zoo with planning and fundraising activities.

The project also forced them to think outside of the box and to work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries to ensure that the redesigned exhibits created opportunities to educate the public about the habits of the animals in the wild and ensured animal safety and well-being.

The Mill Mountain Zoo, originally opening in 1952, is currently operated and funded by the non-profit Blue Ridge Zoological Society. The zoo is home to more than 175 animals, including 21 vulnerable species, and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — one of only three accredited zoos in Virginia.

Because the design projects were intended to benefit those animals, the construction students were assisted by students and faculty from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Students in the design/build capstone course were divided into nine teams of five student each. Each team prepared a proposal for one of four animal exhibits: red pandas, marmosets, vultures, and a cougar/lynx exhibit. The Mill Mountain Zoo’s space is constrained and creative design is required to expand exhibits.

Several factors challenged the students, including the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders, including the zoo's staff, the animals, and zoo visitors; an approach on how to construct their designs; as well as other considerations including the safety of all stakeholders, site accessibility, the ability to build, scheduling, cost, and marketing plans.

Each team prepared a binder and presentation to summarize their work. In addition, they prepared marketing materials for the zoo to use including posters, flyers, and brochures, as well as video “walk-throughs” of their proposed design and three-dimensional models.

In early December, each team presented their final proposal to members of the Blue Ridge Zoological Society board, the Mill Mountain Zoo zookeeper, the Myers-Lawson School of Construction Industry Board, and Myers-Lawson School of Construction faculty and students. 

From these presentations, the top proposals were selected for a cash prize. First place received $1000, second received $500, and both third place teams received $250.

Winning team members presented a proposal for the marmoset exhibit and included:

  • Stephen Bocchicchio of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Brendan Farrell of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Sam Savoia of Marlton, New Jersey, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Max Stadel of Downington, Pennsylvania, a building construction major; and 
  • Yihao Jonathan Zhou of Changzhou, China, a construction engineering and management major.

Second-place team members completed a proposal for the cougar/lynx exhibit and included:

  • Drew Boldridge of Oswego, Illinois, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Chris Dauphin of Brockton, Massachusetts, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Erik Gerloff of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a building construction major; 
  • Michael Romano of Lumberton, New Jersey, a construction engineering and management major; and 
  • Irene Soto of Moseley, Virginia, a construction engineering and management major.

Two teams tied for third place. One team completed a proposal for the marmoset exhibit:

  • Mason Bowman of Glen Allen, Virginia, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Steve Florig of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a building construction major;
  • Eric Gentile of Marshfield, Massachusetts, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Rohin Lahoria of Chandigosh, India, a masters student in building construction; and 
  • Matthew Ramirez of Long Island, New York, a construction engineering and management major; 

The other third place team completed a proposal for the vulture exhibit:

  • Chris DeGracia of  Chesterfield, Virginia, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Dominick Golia of Guilford, Connecticut, a building construction major;
  • Patrick Hennessey of Baltimore, Maryland, a construction engineering and management major; 
  • Carter Neal of Richmond, Virginia, a construction engineering and management major; and
  • Sarah Wingfield of Appomattox, Virginia, a building construction major