The Nerf Atom Blaster, TechnoTurtle, and the Soundy are all creations of the MIT Toy Lab.
When you think about MIT, many things may come to mind. New mathematical formulas. High-level cryptography. But what you probably don't think of are toys.
However, in the MIT Toy Lab, as you might imagine, toys are exactly what students are thinking about. Professor David Wallace and a then-doctoral student Barry Kudrowitz started it together back in 2006. Beginning with a question of what students could relate to, it wasn't farfetched to believe toys would fit the bill. An early result of the lab? The Nerf Atom Blaster. Yes, they actually were part of a product getting to market but that, Wallace assures, is not the main focus. "We're teaching product design and our goal is to try and give skill sets and be technical innovators," Wallace says.
David Wallace (left) and Barry Kurdowitz (right) started the MIT Toy Lab together back in 2006. Image: MIT
Still, that's not to say fun is nonexistent. Steven Keating, a course instructor for the lab, excitedly explains about the toys: "There was one called the Techno Turtle, a DJ-like sequencer that could program musical notes on the back of a turtle and would play it back to you and spin. Another toy made with the idea was you could become a spy and navigate through a laser maze by setting up emitters and detectors, and if you broke a beam, the alarm would go off…Or we did a football that glows in dark and lights up in response to different accelerations."
Geoff Tsai, another course instructor, says the lab highlight for him is seeing the students' growth. "It's the freshman coming in with zero electronic knowledge but they get into projects involving quite a bit of assembling circuits and programming and learning everything to do a final process," he says. "More than the amount of toys, it's the amount of ground that they might have covered and taking initiatives to learn what they need."
At the Boston Children's Museum, a boy plays with a toy created at the MIT Toy Lab, designed to study how kids play and learn. Photo: Melanie Stetson freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
One thing the instructors are learning is that the lab is beyond popular. In fact, it's now grown to 80 students, with another 40 turned away. But even though it offers a chance to be a kid, Wallace says seriousness has to exist in the lab, this partly stemming from the children who are injured or even killed each year from unsafe toys. "It's a huge responsibility for almost any product you design," he says. "If a large number [of toys] are out there, you have to think very carefully."
And that message applies to graduates who go on to work in the toy industry, with Hasbro among the companies that has mined the lab for employees. And as for Wallace's founding partner Kudrowitz?
"He's a professor now at the University of Minnesota and has created a similar situation," Wallace says.
Who says you ever have to completely grow up?
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
We're teaching product design and our goal is to try and give skill sets and be technical innovators.
Prof. David Wallace, MIT
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