At some point in our lives, we all were inspired by our parents and surroundings, including the toys we played with, which influenced our futures.

Monica Cardella and Elizabeth Gajdzik, director and assistant director of the INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering, respectively, developed an Engineering Gift Guide for kids to learn about engineering through toys, games, books, apps and movies.

“While INSPIRE is primarily a research institute, it is important that our research has an impact,” said Cardella. “In our case, our goal is to use our research findings to develop resources that are useful to people.”

Before developing the gift guide, the team conducted research to understand how children learn about engineering outside of school. Members of the team interviewed and surveyed about 80 parents with engineering backgrounds to figure out how parents helped their children learn about engineering. Some of these parents took their kids to science centers and museums to let them take objects apart and play with engineering toys.

Jacob Inman, one of the undergraduate research assistants involved, and Cardella also investigated the patterns in purchasing STEM educational toys. Through customer reviews for those toys, they found these toys are purchased for boys at double the rate that they are purchased for girls.

“We are trying to show that these toys are not just for boys,” Gajdzik said. “They’re for girls too, and girls will like them.”

Gajdzik is also a parent; her daughter, Natalia, is four and her son, Lucas, is two. She finds her children playing with all kinds of toys like trucks and dollhouses.

“Obviously, their interests draw them to different toys,” Gajdzik said. “But I wouldn’t say one is a ‘girl toy’ or a ‘boy toy.’”

The research team also developed different types of feedback forms, which would allow children, parents and INSPIRE researchers to evaluate each product in the gift guide. This helps the team receive feedback about the educational value, the extent to which it promotes engineering skills and the fun value.

INSPIRE also hosts media events, such as the one last week on Nov. 10 and another this Friday, Nov. 20, to help children and their parents gain exposure to the toys and books on the gift guide. Darshini Render, the assistant director of student success at the College of Engineering, sees this as a great way for her daughter to learn about structures and other engineering concepts.

“My daughter is already connecting the dots with what she learned from these toys and what she watches on TV,” said Render.

INSPIRE will be partnering with Imagination Station, Lafayette’s science center, on Dec. 5 to allow children with special needs to explore some of the products on the gift guide. Cardella hopes to update the website soon after with information about which ones were appropriate for children with autism and mobility limitations.

“I’m also interested in fun ways that also provide some sort of learning for my kids,” Gajdzik said. “There are a lot of toys out there that are fun, but you don’t get anything out of it. If there are toys out there that provide learning in a fun way, why not (be involved in this research)?”

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