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This Toy Develops STEM Skills and Hands-On Thinking—Especially in Young Girls

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Gender disparity in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) continues to be a serious problem. The reasons are complex—from lack of children’s stories that feature women scientists, lack of female role models and STEM toys for girls, to persisting biases and stereotypes in schools and universities, and lack of mentorship and flexibility at the workplace. According to the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Foundation, women account for only 25 percent of the employment base in the computer and mathematical sciences field and 15 percent of the engineering workforce.

To light the engineering spark in young girls, MIT professors Maria Yang and Tony Hu have co-founded Brainy Yak Labs, a company with the mission to get kids excited about STEM through creative play. Their first product (which just finished a successful Kickstarter campaign) is a dance party lamp kit called Jubilite, which kids get to build and decorate themselves.

Jubilite lamp

While there are plenty of robot kits, drones, and programmable cars out there, nearly all of them are targeted to boys. A toy or a project needs to capture a child’s attention first, before he or she can learn from it. That is why the MIT duo has decided to start with arts and crafts which is something that many girls and boys love.

In the process of building the lamp, children learn how to use tools to assemble the plastic housing, secure the PCBs (printed circuit boards), and insert the switches. While connecting the electronic modules together, they learn about each component and its function. The instruction booklet also teaches important vocabulary like microcontroller, PCB, RGB, LED, as well as the principles behind electronics and mixing colors with light. After assembling the lamp, kids get to make it their own by decorating it with stickers, markers and sequins.

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Toy Train Barn

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Toy Train Barn, Argyle Wisconsin Lew Blank (Atlas Obscura User)
Toy Train Barn, Argyle Wisconsin Lew Blank (Atlas Obscura User)
Toy Train Barn, Argyle Wisconsin Lew Blank (Atlas Obscura User)
Toy Train Barn, Argyle Wisconsin Lew Blank (Atlas Obscura User)

A lively room filled with tiny trains zipping to and fro is probably the last thing you’d expect to see upon walking into a barn in rural southern Wisconsin, but at the Toy Train Barn in Argyle, an abandoned barn is the perfect setting for an elaborate train diorama.

In June 2001, a small cattle…

Fidget Spinners: Tools or Toys?

fidget spinner spinning
fidget spinner spinning

Andrew Bonini was stuck inside at school on a sweltering day. To get his mind off the heat, the eighth grader took out his fidget spinner — a flat, palm-sized gadget with three arms that spins on a ball bearing. The Connecticut teen flicked it and watched it spin around and around. It whirred quietly.

fidget spinner
fidget spinner

Andrew is 14. His younger sisters each have their own fidget spinners. Twelve-year-old Ava is teaching herself a trick. “I’ll be holding it and spinning it on my pointer finger, then I try to balance it on my middle finger while it’s spinning.” Allie, who’s nine, has been trying to balance hers on her nose as it spins. “It’s not easy,” she notes.

Silly tricks aside, all three siblings feel their spinners are more than mere toys. Andrew thinks the gadget helps him reduce stress and boredom. Allie tends to take hers out when she’s alone in her bedroom and feeling upset or anxious. “If I can play with it for five minutes, it helps me not be as worried,” she says.

The Bonini kids are part of the fidget spinner craze that is sweeping across the United States and other parts of the world. People of all ages are spinning an array of devices that come in all sorts of shapes and colors. The spinners follow a long line of toy fads, from hula hoops to Pokémon cards and silly bands.

But fidget spinners may be more than just a toy. Some websites that sell them have made sweeping health claims. They say the spinners can help relieve stress, anxiety or even the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the same time, some schools have banned the gadgets for being too distracting. So, are spinners annoying toys or therapeutic tools? It turns out, they can be both.

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Spinner inspiration

Years before the current spinner craze took off, inventor Catherine Hettinger of Winter Park, Fla., was going through a difficult summer. She has a disorder called myasthenia gravis. In this condition, instructions from the brain can fail to make it to the muscles. People like Hettinger can therefore have trouble moving their arms and hands. Her daughter, Sara, was seven at the time. “I couldn’t pick up my daughter’s toys and couldn’t play with her,” the woman recalls.

Whenever Hettinger hears of a problem, though, no matter how large or small, she immediately starts imagining devices to fix it. She and her daughter worked together to design and build something they could play with together. “We toyed with all kinds of kitchen stuff and other household objects. I could crumple up newspaper and use tape to think in three dimensions,” she says.

spinning toy
Catherine Hettinger’s granddaughter Chloe plays with a classic fidget spinner. “Once people use it they love it,” says Hettinger.

The result of all that tinkering was a small plastic disc that could be spun on the tip of a finger. In 1993, Hettinger filed for a patent on the spinning toy and started selling it at craft fairs. (A patent gives a person or company exclusive rights to make, sell or use an invention.) She also pitched the device to toy companies. Before a meeting with the vice president and lead designer of one company, Hettinger found herself playing with the spinner. She says, “It helped to calm me down.”

Unfortunately, none of the companies decided to produce her toy. And a patent doesn’t last forever. Hettinger eventually let hers lapse. Though she continued to sell the spinners at craft fairs and online, the idea of a finger spinner no longer belonged to her alone. Yet she’s thrilled that a variation on her idea has now become so popular.

The fidget spinners that most people have now don’t look much like Hettinger’s original. Hers looked a bit like a sun hat or a flying saucer that would balance atop a fingertip. Most of today’s spinners have three arms and spin for a longer time on tiny ball bearings. People have gotten very creative with new sizes and shapes for these spinners.

Scientists turn toy into valuable tool for medical diagnosis

paper centrifuge
paper centrifuge

Medical lab equipment often showcases high-tech at its best. Devices can perform complicated tasks, such as separating blood into its parts, quickly and easily. But these machines often are difficult — even impossible — to use in poor countries or at remote field clinics. Often expensive and bulky, they tend to require training to use. And most are powered by electricity. But researchers have just unveiled a simple, low-cost human-powered device useful for medical diagnoses. It can separate blood into its different parts.

Best of all, it’s so simple a child could run it. Indeed, it is based on a toy that’s been around for thousands of years.

Manu Prakash is a bioengineer at Stanford University in California. There, he designs medical devices that can be used easily by anyone anywhere in the world. A few years back, his team invented a microscope made largely of paper that costs less than a dollar to make.

On a trip to the East African nation of Uganda, a few years ago, Prakash was surprised to see an expensive centrifuge being used as a doorstop. Medical labs use these devices to separate liquid mixtures, such as blood or muddy water, into their different components. Based on what they learn from those components, doctors will tailor a patient’s treatment.

But the clinic did not have electricity. So no one could use this machine.

centrifuge machine
This centrifuge can separate blood or other liquids into their various parts to aid in disease diagnosis. But these machines are costly and need electrical power. And that can prevent their use in many poorer parts of the world.

The key part of a centrifuge is its rapidly rotating interior. Think of it as a small version of a top-loading washing machine. In a centrifuge, though, the interior chamber spins faster than the parts in a car’s engine. Anything inside a spinning centrifuge experiences a force that slings it away from the center of rotation and toward the device’s rim. This is similar to how wet clothes in the washer get squished against the inside wall of the drum during the spin cycle.

When a centrifuge spins a test tube of blood to separate out its various parts, the vial is loaded in with its base pointing outward. Rotation forces outward the densest parts of the blood — platelets and blood cells. Lighter parts, such as the fluid or plasma, stay on top. Doctors or lab technicians can then separate each layer for tests that guide treatment. Without a centrifuge, such tests become difficult, if not impossible.

The centrifuge that had become an expensive doorstop inspired Prakash’s team to invent something that could serve the same purpose. Their device would have to spin very quickly. It would have to be cheap to make and easy to use. And it would have to run without electricity.

Previously, Prakash notes, people had suggested employing kitchen devices as a low-cost centrifuge, such as an egg beater or handheld mixer. But these tools could…