Journal Archive > 2002 > June

Toy story

Engineering and teamwork produce playthings with a purpose

A wheel spins round and round, circling past the brightly colored, numbered sections of a giant "beach ball."

A marble wends its way through a three-dimensional maze, as two players use electronic control boxes to tip the surface of the maze in different directions.

Contest judges William Crochetiere and Sharan Schwartzberg, center, watch a demonstration of the Safari Adventure toy, which took third place. © Mark Morelli

A small train rides through a jungle land populated by lions and tigers, elephants and giraffes.

These are some of the features of "The Seashore Spinner," "Lost in Space" and "Safari Adventure"—three new children's games that are the result of hours of painstaking research and development.

But, you won't find these games on the shelves of Toys 'R' Us. They were designed by students in Prof. Vo Van Toi's Introduction to Biomedical Engineering course as part of an annual toy-design competition.

The competition, sponsored by the Tufts Student Biomedical Engineering Club, took place this spring at the Science and Technology Center. The judges were Sharan Schwartzberg, professor and chair of the Boston School of Occupational Therapy; William Crochetiere, professor of mechanical engineering; and Selma Holden, G02, a graduate student in biomedical engineering.

Vo instructed the students that the toys must not only be fun to play with, but must also serve as a diagnostic tool to aid health professionals in evaluating the development of children with disabilities.

The games could be designed for children with various physical or mental disabilities, but they must able to be operated by two youngsters playing together and should be appropriate for children around 8 years old.

"The toy is, in fact, a research tool," said Vo. "When the child plays with the toy, the researcher can assess the behavior of the children."

Geeta Pamidi, left, explains her project to judge Selma Holden, G02. © Mark Morelli

The first-place winner was a game called the Seashore Spinner, developed by Sonya Jairaj, J03; Becky Horan, E03; Deepa Mehrotra, E03; and Gati Dharani, J04. The game features a large arrow that spins around a beach ball-shaped board. When the arrow stops, the players have to work together to press buttons to light up the appropriate section of the ball.

The final product seems simple, but it wasn't easy to develop. "There was a lot of trial and error," said Mehrotra. "We kept having ideas, and they were legitimate ideas," said Horan, but those ideas didn't always work out. "We had to do a lot of creative thinking," she said.

The second-place game, developed by Jenna Koch, E03; Kate Donohue-Rolfe, J03; Dan Keesing, E04; and Kathy Egan, J03, was Lost in Space, which features a "space alien" (aka, a marble), that has to work its way through a three-dimensional maze from the "blast-off" pad to the "sun."

Third place went to Safari Adventure, in which a small train encounters several obstacles as it works its way along the track, and the children must figure out how to let the train continue on its journey. The inventors of Safari Adventure were Rachel Bill, E04; Karen Buch, E04; Patrick Brophy, E02; and Cecilia Almazan, J03.

The ingenious playthings are not merely the result of crackerjack engineering. Each team includes students from various majors; most include both engineering and liberal arts students. It's the combined expertise of the team members that makes the projects work, Vo says.

Students approach the project thinking in "different languages," Vo said. Working together, they learn to think across traditional boundaries.

The judges agreed. "I liked the teamwork," said Schwartzberg. "They learned how to work together as a team…and I can see these skills carrying over to an employment situation."