"How many people can say they worked on a fish anesthesia delivery system?" Northwestern senior Frank Cummins said. "It was a difficult problem. It was a great challenge, and I will look back on it with a lot of pride."

The freshmen assigned to the penguin shoe project last fall were given few instructions: Design a waterproof shoe that can protect a penguin's foot while it heals, and allow it to walk, swim and stand comfortably.

Three of the student teams designed a sandal, but the winning group redefined the project and realized that a shoe wasn't necessarily the best option.

"They realized that the real need is sometimes not what somebody might say. It is easy to say, 'We need shoes to protect their feet.' What they really needed was to protect the sore part of the foot," said Stacy Benjamin, senior lecturer with Northwestern's Segal Design Institute. "The students learned that if you force yourself to think broadly and dive down to the root causes and issues, sometimes you end up redefining the problem."

Some project designs have been more successful than others. The specialized penguin footwear is likely to be a keeper, the Shedd's Ramirez said.

"Every once in a while you get a design that is workable, and we end up using it forever," he said.

On a recent afternoon at the Shedd, Lana Vanagasem, who oversees the Shedd's penguins, demonstrated how it works, wrapping the bandage around Penguin 303's foot and between its three toes.

The bandage is made of kinesiology tape, and a circular piece of neoprene foam is attached in the middle to cover and protect a sore.

Other than some wiggling as the bandage was put on his foot, Penguin 303 didn't seem to mind it.

"It is like a comfy pair of slippers," Ramirez said.

The students made a cookie cutter-like prototype so Shedd staff can cut out as many of the bandages as it needs over the years. Since the class designed the device last semester, no Shedd penguins have had bumblefoot.

Northwestern sophomore Karis Shang smiled as she watched the penguin waddle around in her team's winning design, made of purple tape in honor of Northwestern's color.

But when asked whether the successful design earned her an A in the class, she demurred.

"We did well," she said.

jscohen@tribune.com