When Play Is Work, and Vice Versa
When it came time for Smith's engineering students in "Engineering 100" to work on a project designing high-tech toys, it was easy to decide who their collaborators would be: the ones who still play with toys.
An invitation was enough to get 80 local middle schoolers on campus to brainstorm with Smith engineering students and faculty at an unusual workshop held this winter. Called ToyTech-Teaching Our Youth Technology-the workshop was sponsored by Smith and the Silicon Valleybased Institute for Women in Technology (IWT) and based on the engineering principle that to design things well one must also understand the needs of the people who will use them.
What better way for students in Smith's new engineering program to absorb this concept and develop models and prototypes for the new toys that came out of the ToyTech workshop? Aruna Sarna, a first-year engineering student from Los Angeles, spoke for many when she said, "It was a great experience.
"It gave me the opportunity to meet with these very bright and intelligent kids who offered insight into things that students and adults tend to forget," she noted. "It was very nice to experience the kids' imaginations. Sometimes people get so held up in their day-to-day lives that they forget to imagine. And I enjoyed the experience because it reminded me of what my mom used to tell me-that there are no limits when one wants to create."
What Sarna was referring to was the highly directed brainstorming session, led by IWT executive director Sara Hart, using methodology known as "Thinking Environment." This innovative model of interaction, used by leading organizations, is based on the premise that the quality of what we produce depends on the thinking we do first. So ToyTech participants started by considering the toys that they wished they had had.
The only criteria were that the toys had to be technology based and appeal to both boys and girls. When the day was over, it was clear there had been no shortage of ideas. Among the toys dreamed up at ToyTech were devices that bestowed upon their owners the capabilities to shrink or enlarge their own "personal stuff" (but little brothers and sisters were off-limits), to download into a computer any book ever published, or to enter a virtual playhouse and choose a culture and historical period in which to immerse oneself.
Following the workshop, Angela Murphy '04 of Catamuet, Massachusetts, who is thinking about studying astronautical engineering, said, "It was awesome to get to work in a semiprofessional way with the kids. I got to think like a kid, and that was really helpful in expanding my imagination."
Fatima Toor '04 of Pakistan, who is
interested in electrical engineering, said she was already thinking
about how to invent a high-tech type of computer stylus, which
the kids called a "Smart Pen." As imagined by the younger
students, it would come equipped with features such as a dictionary,
This semester, after deciding what toy concepts were the most feasible, the engineering students continued to collaborate with the younger students and their teachers to design prototypes. Several of the engineering students presented their work-in-progress at a technology conference in April.
Through its new association with IWT, Smith has been designated as a site for one of only six IWT Virtual Development Centers in the United States. The college has received a $250,000 equipment grant, donated by the Hewlett-Packard Corporation through its alliance with the project. The grant has provided students with scientific calculators, digital cameras, CD writers, printers, notebook PCs and computer workstations. Other corporate supporters of the development centers include Xerox, Sun Microsystems, Compaq Computers and IBM.
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