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Buttons, pizza trucks and robot cars. Engineering students design and build toys that teach STEM to school children in Oakland

Cornerstone of Engineering students spent four months researching, modeling, designing, testing and building toys using CAD software, 3D printing, woodworking, soldering, wiring and good old-fashioned trial and error.

Students testing a toy built by an engineering student.
Cornerstone of Engineering students on Northeastern’s Oakland campus work with elementary school and their teachers, getting feedback and making incremental improvements. Courtesy photo

OAKLAND, Calif. — You know what kids like? Things that light up. Also: cars, animals and food. And buttons. 

Lots of buttons. 

“We had a kid in here who said, ‘I like it when the buttons light up,’” said Marie Ryan, a Northeastern University student who teamed up with classmates Devynne Salazar and Megan Otto to design “Maze Mania,” a moving highway puzzle on which a car travels to a lit-up corner that is chosen by — you guessed it — pushing a button. 

Ryan and her 28 Cornerstone of Engineering classmates presented their projects on Friday at Northeastern’s Oakland campus, a culmination of nearly four months of researching, modeling, designing, testing and building toys using CAD software, 3D printing, woodworking, soldering, wiring and good old-fashioned trial and error.

“There is no failure today,” said Leila Keyvani, Northeastern associate teaching professor who taught the engineering course. “It’s only figuring out what you did well and what you want to work on more.”

An elementary school student testing a toy in front of an Engineering student.
An elementary school student tests a toy designed and build by a Cornerstone of Engineering student on Northeastern’s Oakland campus. Courtesy photo

Learning from children

And work they did. The engineering students showed their toys to children and teachers at a local school every few weeks, getting feedback and making incremental improvements. 

The youngsters told the student engineers what they liked, and the teachers — the “stakeholders” — told them what was important to teach: resiliency and problem-solving.

All seven toys aimed to do just that. But make it fun, and introduce the children to sophisticated STEM concepts on their level. 

“The Jeopardy Game Boy,” asked age-appropriate STEM questions and had the advantage of eight buttons, each corresponding to an answer to questions like, what does salt do to ice? Whoever pushes the correct answer first wins the round, and seven correct answers wins the game. 

The team brainstormed ideas before landing on the sophisticated contraption, which housed a breadboard, wires, two LCD screens and ran the program of questions and answers. 

Lifelong love of STEM

But answering STEM questions can be intimidating, and a little encouragement builds confidence. The team was sensitive to that, so when a child got an answer wrong, “Jeopardy Game Boy” gave them an encouraging response: “Nice try! Better luck next time!” 

Perseverance is a key skill needed of STEM scholars — the problem-solving and resiliency that the teachers deemed paramount in early product meetings.

“It explicitly engages them with STEM,” said Sachin Patel, who had the help of his teammates Stuart Campbell and Jedediah Sahi.

Another toy, “Pizza Express,” measured the speed of a pizza truck, carrying as many pizzas (actually, magnets with pizza stickers on top) down a ramp as fast as possible without crashing.

A clever way to teach kids about physics: mass, speed and velocity. 

Students had to improvise

A four-student team of Isabella Kaness, Sydney Su, Sebastian Lorenzam and Aryan Imanabedi first pitched a different, but equally delicious, food truck. But they had to improvise.

“When we were first testing it with the kids, we used a taco truck and they loved it,” said Lorenzam. But using magnets that were round, pizzas made more sense. 

Once the player stacks the pizzas in the truck, and lets it rip down the ramp, a successful delivery is marked by a speed readout on an LCD screen. It’s a number, but the students pushed it to be more kid-friendly by comparing the speed to an animal. 

Your pizza truck can be as fast as a cheetah, wolf, lion, rabbit or sloth. 

These little details counted. And the team wisely gave out pizza stickers to their tiny beta testers. One child, carefully positioning her truck on the top of the ramp, stuck a pizza in the middle of her forehead while playing.

“The Earthquake Simulator” used food as well: dry spaghetti and marshmallows. The goal was to make a shape, using the food, that could survive a vibrating base. While making a square seemed like a good idea, the toy taught basic principles of physics: big bottoms are good, but squares aren’t very strong. 

Triangles, on the other hand, are more stable.

A four-student team of Rylan Honikman, Zachary Wong, Matthew Heinle and Milan Patel are all Northeastern global scholars who knew each other on the university’s London campus before spending this semester in Oakland.

They were proud of their toy, and how the kids watched with excitement to see if their shapes withstood the “earthquake.” 

A few marshmallows may have been sacrificed.

“Some were eaten, allegedly,” joked Honikman.

Using old concepts in new ways

“Chaos Maze” used an Archimedes screw, typically found in grain silos, to propel a marble vertically up a series of PVC pipes with hidden trap doors, controlled by sensors. 

Gos Morten said the Archimedes screw is an icon of engineering that moves things like grain and water more efficiently than a conveyor belt. He and teammates Enis Ervatur, Ryan Su and Adal Tajuddin each took a turn being project manager and learned a lot about leadership and motivating a team. 

Learning these skills was part of the assignment, too. 

“We’re making the engineers aware of something other than the technical aspects of their projects,” their professor said.

The “Veloci-Car,” had a big advantage: it was a robot car. A black button made it go fast, and a white button slowed it down. Players also made their own roadway with wood blocks — how bumpy was up to them.

The goal was to see how fast the car could go before crashing. 

Teammates Kevin Chu, Sanjay Dave, Rodrigo Valdes and John Nalvandian had fun getting on the floor with the kids to find out. 

Playing to learn

As did the “City Constructor” team, whose members sat next to curious kids as they helped them navigate their alternative energy landscape, where players could choose solar panels, a windmill or water wheel to power the city, town, suburb or farm of their imaginations.

“There is no right answer,” said Kayley DeWitt, who teamed up with Josh Levinson, Lyanne Xu and Austin Weiss to create the toy.

Their board boasted an impressive 128 magnets, each connected to at least two wires, so that the players could see how the alternative energy sources lit up their town. 

And the kids carried a lot of power too: scoring the toys with a green sticker for “great!” and a yellow one for “I have questions.”

There were a lot of green stickers.

Including one dropped in the middle of the classroom’s linoleum floor, announcing the entire showcase as pretty great.

“What’s really important for us is that we have this mutually beneficial experience,” said Jenny Bond, interim head of the school for children ages 2-10. “You can see the learning go all the way across from the 5-year-olds to the adult students.”