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Toys that Teach

By Anna Mulrine

Sherra Kerns recalls the day her daughter, then 6 years old, came to her one Saturday to say she wanted to get something from the top shelf of a tall closet. Kerns followed her into the room and sat down in the middle of the floor. She asked her daughter how they were going to tackle the project. “Certainly I didn't want to do something to compromise her safety,” she says.

She supervised her daughter as she considered using a table as a stepping stool. “I asked her, ‘OK, what's the best way to move it over to the closet? Do you get behind it and shove it, or do you push it?'” Next, they tried a stool. She asked her daughter, “Are you going to fall? Why don't you rock it and see if it's steady?” Kerns and her daughter spent hours on the project. “It's amazing the sense of achievement that kids get from realizing they have created something that makes them a little more autonomous—it's really a feeling of power.”

Today, Kerns is vice president for innovation and research at Olin College in Needham, Mass., and president elect of ASEE. Through her experience with her daughter, and countless students over the years, Kerns has become convinced that immersing children in the world of engineering should begin at an early age. “I think young children are natural engineers—if you've ever seen a 2 year-old figure out how to reach a countertop to get a cookie. They will move things into place, create structures and piles, test them for stability—it really is an engineering kind of a problem.”

Kerns believes that toys and tools—whether used in pursuit of countertop cookies, building forts, or playing with silly putty—can stimulate the engineering instinct in children. “In part, our educational system doesn't identify activities as engineering—teachers don't say, ‘Gee, you know what you just did was an engineering kind of a thing. Those abilities aren't always recognized and stimulated in our children.' ”

Today, however, select programs around the country are showing teachers how to do just that. Mamie Moy is a founder of the SMART (Science and Math Applied Resources for Teachers) program at the University of Houston. Toys, she says, are the key to making science and engineering more approachable—for both students and teachers. “It's science that's being taught with very friendly things,” says Moy, also a professor of chemistry at the university. “You mention toys and they're not afraid of it. Yo-yo's, Slinkys—nobody's afraid of those. You mention a fulcrum, and immediately people freeze.”

Moy scours dime stores for all sorts of toys and gadgets that she can use in the workshops she runs, which teach teachers how to share science with their students. Recently, she began offering workshops for the parents of elementary and middle schoolers, so they could learn how to get their kids excited about science concepts. “We're always on the lookout for fun, practical things,” she says. To illustrate wave function, for example, she uses Slinkys. “You just wave it, and see how it bobs up and down. That way, you can see wave function. You can make it go as fast as you want to, and make the frequency as great—or as short or long—as you want.”

Moy also taught her students how to make that 70's toy classic—Shrinky Dinks—and they learned some important science principles in the process. The kids gathered clear, plastic deli trays (“You can use the styrofoam ones, she says, but they're not as dramatic”). They cut flat pieces and measured their surface area and weight. “Then we heat it, it shrinks, and we mass it again. Has it lost any mass? Has the surface area decreased? Then we do the percentage of shrinkage. It's very easy. We use toaster ovens, and we can also ask how much energy we needed to use to shrink it.” Depending on the time of year and season, the shrinky dink science projects also make good gifts—we do Halloween decorations, tree ornaments, mothers day hearts,” she says.

Likewise, the students play with yo-yo's to learn about spin and mechanics, and silly putty to discuss polymers. “It's not that easy to talk about polymer science,” Moy says. “But we can deal with products that are polymers, and, of course, environmentally, we have a lot of discussion going on with plastics and polymers. What are the benefits? Can we live without plastics? Then we find out our body is just full of polymers—proteins, sugars, carbs, skin—these are all polymers. It's just an understanding of what it is—and what role science plays in their lives.”

Sometimes, the kids make their own toys—like slime, a combination of Elmer's glue and borax. “When we vary the concentrations of glue, we get different products. If we use it straight out of the container, it's hard and rubbery. If we dilute it, it gets stretchier,” Moy explains. The kids can learn what the limits of dilution are in order to get the slime or whatever we're looking for.” And the best part: the kids get to keep the slime.

Making their own toys is what it's all about at Smith College's annual KID TOY challenge. The toy and game design program was created by Smith College last year to encourage children's interest in engineering. In June, 243 teams of fifth through eighth graders took part in the competition. “We got together and decided that what would really excite kids about careers in science is not necessarily the real basic fundamentals, but what you could do with science and engineering,” says Domenico Grasso, director of Smith's Picker Engineering Program. “We decided we'd try to excite them by having a toy design competition.”

For the contest, teams of kids—half of whose members must be girls—partner up with a parent adviser. The toys they created, Grasso says, were nothing short of impressive. One winning toy was called Wet Your Pants, a cross between the game Twister and the electronic game Simon, popular in the 80's. Squares on a stepping pad would light up in different sequences. “You have to step on them—and if you screwed up and missed it, there was an overhead sprinkler system that came on,” Grasso explains. The project brought together solenoid valves, which electrically open and close. Fail to repeat the exact pattern, and the pad sends a message to the computer, and the computer gives instructions to open the valves for an extended period of time. “These were middle school kids, and they were learning about control systems, electrical circuiting—it was a really great experience for them.” Another team created a three-dimensional globe game, complete with hurricanes to blow participants off course.

The competition, in its second year, is an important component of Smith's engineering program, the only one in the country based at a women's college. “When I was hired as the program's founding director, one of the things I thought of doing was making engineering socially relevant,” Grasso says. The result was the TOY Tech program, which brings Smith undergraduates, through their first year design course, into the classroom to help teachers become comfortable sharing engineering lessons with their kids. “Our students had real clients, and they had to understand the basic science and develop something that would demonstrate that for middle schoolers. It's not just revolving around what they had to teach, but who the recipient would be.”

To make it fun, some of his students, teaching a lesson on simple machines, organized a tug-of-war contest in which they gave the mechanical advantage—a pulley—to the students. “We'd have one student in middle school against a teacher or a principal of the school. The students would always win—there was no way they could lose—and that lesson really stuck with them.” The Smith students also used Nerf rocket ships to teach propulsion and trajectories. Since its inception, Grasso says, the program “has benefited everyone—the schools, our students—enormously.”

Miami University in Middletown, Ohio, has seen a decided increase in demand among teachers for programs through its TOYS (Teaching Our Youth Science) program. There, teachers work with K'NEX sets, building toys made up of rods and connectors, to create working models of simple machines. They build ramps and cars to learn the principles of inertia. Attach magnets to toy cars, and they learn about how objects attract and repel each other. Today, the university's Terrific Science program publishes books like “Exploring Energy with Toys,” and “Science Night Family Fun.” They post projects on their Web site,, lessons that describe activities including how to create a snazzy glitter wand and teach kids about solids, liquids, and gases at the same time.

Head Start

Recently the toys program began working with preschool teachers, says Susan Gertz who spearheads creative development. It published its first book for kids: Squishy, Squashy Sponges. The book delves into the ways in which preschoolers can use sponges to begin forming ideas about science. “They can learn about how the world works—that materials in your life, like sponges, behave in certain ways, that things are similar in certain ways,” Gertz says. “They might not necessarily understand why it happens, but they learn that we live in a world where things happen—and we're trying to give that some order.”

< Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University, where he runs the Center for Engineering Education Outreach, finds the developments encouraging. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to require engineering in its elementary and secondary curriculum. The center, now 10 years old, pairs its undergraduate engineering students with elementary school teachers and students. One of their most important teaching toys has long been that childhood staple: Legos. “They're appealing,” Rogers says, “and not nearly as scary as if we're coming in with crescent wrenches.”

The engineering students and elementary teachers teach students how to build a sturdy wall by having their Lego bricks overlap. Then the students drop their creations from their knees, and see where they break. They also build Lego moon rovers. “They play with the gears and the pulleys, but we're not doing gear ratios, and we're not calling it torque,” explains Merredith Portsmore, the education and technology program manager for the center. “We're just teaching them to look for patterns in relationships—what's better for going up hills, or speeding across the rug?”

Straws are used to teach kids about fluid mechanics, and transparencies to build miniature greenhouses. Through it all, Rogers says, “What we've found is that engineering problems are a great way to teach in general.” Portsmore says that one of her favorite moments was overhearing first graders arguing. The source of their debate: their Lego cars. “I heard one say, ‘Your car doesn't move because your tires are rubbing against the frame of your car—there's too much friction!'”

Rogers adds that ensuring the kids graduate without a fear of engineering is the main goal of the center. “If you go to a cocktail party and say that you're an engineer, it's amazing how the conversation ceases,” Rogers says. “Mostly what you'll get is people saying ‘That's way too complicated for me.'”

Ultimately, as programs show both students and their teachers how toys tie into fundamental engineering concepts, they produce students who not only are not frightened of engineering but who might actually love it.

Anna Mulrine is a freelance writer based in
Washington, D.C.


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