April 2014

Current Views

By Barry Sullivan, Program Director, ECEDHA

We Are What We Play With

Ensuring a healthy pipeline of young people ready and willing to pursue studies in engineering—aka, STEM outreach—was a major topic of discussion at the recently concluded ECEDHA Annual Conference and ECExpo in Napa, California.  It’s also the theme for this issue of the ECE Source.

It’s not hard to find articles on K-12 STEM initiatives in the popular press.  Three of the news stories selected for this issue, describing programs in Delaware, Oregon, and Mississippi, appeared over just one weekend.

All of this attention to inspiring and cultivating interest in math and science in general, and engineering in particular, brings to mind a couple other articles I saw back in November, just as Christmas shopping season was shifting into high gear.  The articles serve as a reminder of the importance of play in early education.

My wife and I have always favored educational toy stores, which is where I think the best toys are found.  I have fond memories of crystal radio kits, Lionel trains, and Erector sets from my childhood.  I love to see how many old favorites are still around (remember Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys?), and check out what’s new.

One of the articles I saw last November was a great pictorial put together by a kindred spirit, with a sampling of new offerings mixed with updates on some classics.  My reaction was a combination of nostalgia and envy.  It’s good to know some of the toys that encouraged the nascent engineers of my generation are still around, but I’m jealous of the cool new ones that didn’t exist when I was growing up.

I learned a few things about my favorites, too.  For example, I never knew Lincoln Logs were created by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, who was inspired by one of his father’s buildings.  What a beautiful legacy from one generation to the next—a father’s design inspiring his son, whose creation in turn inspires future architects and builders.

This also underscores my point.  Our toys and how we play with them as children can foreshadow future choices in our academic studies and careers.  I also believe toys can reveal undiscovered interests and tease out a child’s hidden abilities.

Contrary to the implied message of the clearly dated ad for the Erector set in this article, there’s no reason any of these toys wouldn’t make a great gift for a girl or a boy.  Still, it’s nice to see someone take deliberate aim at gender stereotypes in the toy aisle.  Maybe you’ve seen ads for the building set designed to appeal to girls.  It’s the brainchild of a woman who studied engineering at Stanford, intended to help girls get in touch with their own inner engineer.

The joy of engineering can be learned at an early age.  The fun can last a lifetime.

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