Dec 12, 2016

I Love Quotes

When I was in college, I collected quotations. They spoke wise whispers to me in my times of frustration and loss of direction. But they also made me laugh my pants off when a good email was circulated around the net.
more at

I kept them on index cards, pulling on them later when consoling friends and later advising students. But I also used the humorous ones while teaching and in industry. A good joke that's funny because it's true and ludicrous at the same time can get a lot of people on your side.

I have started to preserve these quotations on Pinterest, so take a peek if you are in the mood for humor, wise words, or historical perspective.

Nov 27, 2016

STEM toys, books for toddlers, preschool

My apologies for the lack of posts. It's been busy here, though I do hope to get some STEM historical posts out soon (work that I did with Laser Classroom).

Engineer's Playground has been working with some friends in Indianapolis as they start on the nuts and bolts of their very interesting STEM program for Elementary Education majors. Meantime, here is an update on what's been happening behind the scenes here at Engineer's Playground.

TOYS: Circuits for Toddlers

Engineer's Playground proudly worked with Mindware Toys to develop Start-Up Circuits for toddlers in the switch-phase. Portable, with three different switches and actuators (actions), this toy tries to leverage toddler persistence and curiosity to develop the basic idea that "a circuit is a circle": When the circle is complete, amazing things happen. When it is broken, things stop working. Available on,, and select Targets.

BOOKS: Technology for Toddlers

Mechanisms in a Steam Engine (and Reverse Engineering)

Engineer's Playground is proud to announce that founder Yvonne Ng is working with Amicus Ink, a new imprint of The Creative Company, to publish a book about how steam trains work. Scheduled for publication in Fall 2018.

Road Construction Design Considerations and Phases and Construction Machines

Yvonne leveraged her civil engineering internship experience in Pittsburgh and her friends and family in the road construction business to write this book to explain to her 4 yr old why the nearby street was being torn up. Amicus Ink has this scheduled to be published in Fall 2019.

I hear there is a video coming out for Start-Up Circuits from Mindware, but until then, you can see it in action on this video:

Aug 28, 2016

Switches On! Using Start-Up Circuits for #STEM Learning

"There must be an easier way," I thought to myself as I held my 1-year old to the light switch. He had just figured out how to turn lights on and off and needed to make sure it always worked.

Children learn through play

As a STEM educator, I figured I better let this phase of switches run its course. After all, how long would he need to determine that flipping it up would turn the light on and flipping it down would turn it off? My Montessori colleague reminded me that play is the way kids experiment and figure out the patterns of nature and our designed world. What causes what effect? I, like other parents, dealt with the incessant "spoon-dropping" routine, only to have it replaced by the switch phase. So there I was, holding the tyke to the wall. Hope sprang eternal in me. It couldn't be too much longer to figure this out, right?

And then he discovered the fan switch.

Necessity is the mother of invention

So, my engineering side kicked in. After years of working as a control engineer, I decided the design would not only be mobile but also modular. I was going to give him a bunch of switches to control the light because a mother knows the attention span of a toddler is short.

So I grabbed some MegaBlocks, drilled them out, and wired them up with LEDs, switches, button batteries, and conductive thread. I put the quick-and-dirty prototype in my 1-yr old's hands, and he was quite delighted. Then, he pulled the blocks apart, and lo, the light went out.

The Idea

Then, the magical moment happened in my mind: the STEM educator side butted heads with the engineer side, and the Start-Up Circuits toy was conceived.

available at
I brought the prototype to Mindware, a Minnesota-based toy / game company interested in the STEM market and explained:

As an engineer, I noticed that the best engineers learned concepts when they were young, clocking hours of fidgeting, experimenting, and playing with the technology. Many of these play times were in a pre-verbal stage. Alternatively, the kid engineers learned these patterns on their own (not in a formal lesson) and may never have articulated their observations or models. They just knew--after literally thousands of hours of interacting and observing--what to expect. They knew what was needed to make things work. These experiences ranged from the toys engineers played with as children to chores or hobbies they had.

If we did it right, I told Mindware, this toy could give children some play experiences that could be leveraged in future formal lessons in STEM.

STEM Lesson: A circuit is a circle

From years of teaching my "engineering for everyone" course at St. Catherine University, I realized electricity novices did best if they understood the idea that a circuit is a circle. Specifically, electrical circuits are really circles from the positive end of the battery to the negative. If you break the circle, the device doesn't work. In this toy, that could be done by flipping a switch or by pulling the blocks apart. So much troubleshooting and creative design could be done after understanding this one simple concept.

So the design of Start-Up Circuits includes a red line that runs from the action block to the switch block. I remind my son "Connect red to red" which helps him align the blocks up properly. Then I tack on, "Make a circle. That's a circuit." Now, after 2 weeks of his playing with the toy, pulling it apart, and doing imaginative play, he has queried, "What's a circuit?" Ah, the breadcrumbs of STEM knowledge that we drop in early childhood education!

More STEM lessons

Last Thursday, I brought the toy to the Minnesota State Fair's STEM @ the State Fair day. It was great to see infants, toddlers, and preschoolers engaging with the toy in so many ways. I even saw some playful 13-15-year olds (and some adults) playing with it. Here's what I overheard and why I was happy to hear them:

  • "Look I made a fan": This was a common phrase I heard. It was exciting for folks to put together two blocks and make something work. As the kids played more, they started to see that one switch block and one action block was needed to make something work--the start of systems thinking
  • "How do I turn this on?": Some kids were flummoxed by the slider switch. They kept trying to push it. They just hadn't been exposed to this particular "switch technology" before, so how would they know how to operate it? When I showed them that it slid, they immediately figured out how to turn it off. Believe  it or not, this was the development of spatial understanding.
  • "Red goes to red": The blocks look a little like the original MegaBlocks that I drilled out. But for some kids, it wasn't obvious that the orientation mattered. As they tried to match red to red, they spun, rotated, and turned the pieces to figure out how to assemble the toy. It was another spatial thinking lesson.
  • "Here, try this": This phrase was accompanied by parents putting the toy in their stroller-bound child's hands. I, myself, give the toy to my son in the car seat. He loves the fan, in particular. But he also seems to like the siren--go figure. I had hoped that the portability would help parents keep their little ones occupied when they had to stay in one place for a while. Why is this important? It lets the little ones clock more hours in the tinkering, experimenting, and observing.
  • "My special needs students would love this": I hadn't even thought of this, but a few teachers stopped by and talked about how the toy 1) gave their students with limited motor skills something achievable (and interesting) and 2) didn't look like it was for babies. The STEM lesson was just icing on the cake.
  • "The Party Toy": OK, so this is what my playful IT colleagues said about the toy. The light would be good for concerts, the fan for when it got hot, and the siren (woo-hoo) was for when Business and IT actually agreed on a solution. The lesson to me: STEM folks are often still kids at heart!
  • "Switches on!": The action blocks include a globe light, fan, and a spinning siren. These apparently are great for imaginative play. My now 4-yr old likes to bring them into our bedroom and close the door and "hunt for bugs." I have even caught him holding the light or the siren in the air like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars poster, shouting "Energon!" (OK, maybe he's playing Transformers, not Star Wars.) Recently, we used them to scare away monsters at night (the light locates them, the siren freezes them, and the fan blows them away). Creativity is important in many fields, including STEM.

After the STEM breadcrumbs are dropped in children's minds, who knows what else the creative kids will do with the toy? One of my son's friends dresses up as a princess and shines the light and the fan on herself. Her mother tells me, "Princesses need to understand circuits, too!" Yes, they do.

Update: Here is a an action video: tweet of Start-Up Circuits

Start-Up Circuits is available online at and and at select Target stores.

See also:

Jul 22, 2016

Teaching #STEM With Yvonne: #Engineers' Birthdays

When I was young, some of my teachers had "special calendars" - birthdays of writers, scientists, events that related to what they were teaching.

I loved this. For the people I knew about, I felt more enlightened by learning the time period they lived because it helped me tie their contributions to other subjects like literature, history, social studies, art. For the people I didn't know about, the tidbit about them often piqued my interest and curiosity about their work.

Engineers have birthdays, too

During the holidays, Half Price Books bookstore gives out calendars each year with artists and authors' birthdays. As an adult, I found the calendar triggered the same interest again.

So I thought, could I do this with engineers? I took a random sample and found engineers who contributed their names to techniques, formulae, tools, and materials used by engineers: NyquistGore (of Gore-Tex), Gantt. I also found engineers who developed things that we take for granted either as engineers or just people in this modern world: SPICE (Donald Pederson), standard time (Sanford Fleming), email (Ray Tomlinson), Post-It Note (Arthur Fry), disposable diapers (Victor Mills), Super Soaker (Lonnie Johnson).

Engineering is more than just a degree in engineering

Then my liberal arts education kicked in. Why were they all men? My women's studies professors shouted in my head to dig deeper. Don't be like that American writers anthology that had the most obscure male writer but neglected to include Emily Dickinson.

So, I expanded my list of engineering birthdays to include people with the *Engineering Spirit. I found people who did engineering before there were formal engineering programs (e.g. Daniel Bernoulli, Charles Babbage, Leonardo daVinci). Others were those who could not attend formal engineering programs (or sometimes any educational program) because of their gender, social status, cultural background, or economic group: e.g. Robert Fulton (steamboat), Kate Gleason (machine tools), Martha Coston (flares), Annie Easly (Centaur rocket calculations). 

I also found that "non-engineers" made engineering contributions early in a technology's development, possibly because no formal education was available and passion and opportunity was what was needed. For example, computer scientists came from a variety of backgrounds like math (e.g. Grace Hopper) or music (e.g. Janice Lourie). Others had started engineering school but found they could engineer faster in the field by running a startup (e.g. Steve Wozniak).

Engineers can do other things

Today, people need to earn an engineering degree in order to get an engineering job. The degree keeps the engineering career option open. But engineering training may help in any number of other jobs, hobbies, or fields.

While researching birthdays, I found a number of ~Secret Engineers. These are people who earned an engineering degree and may even have worked as an engineer, but who the general public knows for other accomplishments. I found that knowing they are engineers gave me an interesting take on their success. Consider Edwin Moses (track and field Olympian), James Dean (Pete the Cat creator), Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock (directors), Michael Gambon (aka the later Dumbledore), Sally Jewell (former REI CEO and current Secretary of the Interior), Ursula Burns (CEO of Xerox), Lisa P Jackson (EPA director), and E. R. Braithwaite ("Sir" in To Sir, With Love).

Interesting trends

I can't help but share some weird trends I saw. It would be great fodder for the 10,000 hours concept described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

  • February: Three key women engineering spirits were born this month. I heard of Margaret Knight and Mary Anderson in my 6th grade reader so I feel they reached some level of notoriety: Margaret Knight (flat bottomed paper bag), Mary Anderson (windshield wiper), Beulah Louise Henry ("Lady Edison") -- who coincidentally shared a birthday with the actual Thomas Edison.
  • April: To date, this month has the most number of engineers in the car racing game: Paddy Lowe (Mercedes Formula One), Mike Gascoyne (Caterham Group), Milka Duno (world-class Indy and stock car female racer)
  • December: Some key early computer engineering spirits were born this month: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Grace Hopper

Not all engineers listed

I tried to keep the engineers ones who were relevant to our daily lives. There have been a lot of engineers who contributed to society, but I wanted to avoid what Sandra Gilbert noticed in trying to "fill" the anthology. I didn't just add any engineer listed in Wikipedia or Famous Birthdays. I picked engineers that teachers and parents could use to make engineering seem interesting and relevant to children's lives. Also, I avoided some engineers who worked on well known projects but who had backgrounds that would be difficult to explain to children (e.g. Jack Ryan, engineer of Barbie). I know it's censoring but with the best intentions.

Want more birthdays?

Check out or subscribe to the Engineer's Playground calendar (below or on the Engineering Should Be Fun site which has tips and fun things for engineering and computer science students/young professonals). Or if you want a daily dose, I have the calendar populate my Linked In page posts since it has the nicest presentation for the automated posting.

I promised my engineering friend in project management that one day I will make a printed version for project managers because they seem to be the only ones who still use printed calendars. So, I'm working diligently to find worthy engineering birthdays to fill it.


Jun 10, 2016

#STEAM: #STEM + the Arts, recent lessons

Blogging at Engineer's Playground is moving into summer mode, and will be a bit infrequent. However, we thought this recent post at COMPAS would be of interest to some of you. COMPAS received a recent grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and brought Engineer's Playground in to help artists "STEMify" their activities.
photo by Shelly Kryzer

These types of consulting activities are fun for us here. We get to learn more from experts in other fields while helping them discover their own potential to help STEM education along without compromising their art or STEM.

Apr 1, 2016

#STEM Starts at Home: Spoon aka Tools and More

What to do 

Give your little one a baby spoon. It can be plastic, metal with smooth edges, or that fancy rubber-metal combo. It should be big enough so your tyke can’t shove it too far into his or her mouth (and choke) if very young. Be prepared for banging, drooling, and dropping to ensue!
image by debsch, via

What you are doing 

While the spoon could be a first introduction to materials (see Touch!), it is a great introduction to many more skills required in STEM.

Typical infants will develop sophisticated observation skills (see Go Outside), but their world can drastically change when they realize that they can influence what happens. If they drop the spoon off the high chair, it disappears. It clangs. And if you’re lucky, someone will pick it up, and you can start all over again.

As your infant grows, he or she may peer over the edge and watch that spoon fall—gravity in action. Your curious child will need to see if gravity always works: Will it work now? How about now? How about in the living room? At the restaurant? At Grandma’s? It can be grating, but try as long as you can to help your tyke realize the larger concept. My family likes to say, “Yes, gravity still works. It works the same as it did yesterday. And it works the same at Grandma’s house as at ours.” But to your little one, that’s a big discovery. When the evidence is overwhelming that this force of nature can be relied upon, your little one will stop the incessant dropping (and probably not a moment too soon for your sanity). The dropping of the spoon phase will segue into a new aspect of STEM skills. 

The spoon is often the softest “first tool” for a baby. After appreciating its material properties, your little one will start to appreciate its design. It can carry (food into the mouth), it can scoop. It can catapult. It can stir. It’s the first introduction to using things in the environment to change the environment.

Tools are needed by all STEMmies: Engineers make prototypes with tools. Technicians manufacture, troubleshoot, and maintain products with tools. Scientists design new experiments with tools to test their hypotheses. Mathematicians use tools that are a bit more abstract: Calculators and slide rules in the old days for calculations, but today, the computer is one of the most versatile tools, allowing them to solve equations, graph to find patterns, and even animate to visualize surfaces or test models. Learning how to use different tools helps kids learn to leverage the latest material, manufacturing, power, and information technologies!

How you can grow 

A natural progression from the spoon is the ladle, and then the shovel. Beach time or bath time provides natural motivation to learn these tools – and practice time! Later, sticks will become the all-purpose tool that lays the foundation for your little one to appreciate more specialized tools: forks for poking, tongs (and chopsticks) for picking up, spatulas for lifting and flipping, and knives (plastic ones) for slicing.

A well-known Montessori activity is “banana cutting” where kids learn not only tool use (and safety) but also life-skills. Preschool children want so much to be like adults which explains why cooking sets appeal to both boys and girls at this age.

Let your kiddo help where possible in the kitchen (wash, tear, pour, stir, mix, cut) or in the workshop (pounding boards – no nails necessary, putting screwdrivers in holes, ratcheting). These experiences not only develop tool skills but also spatial skills (see Turn!) and construction-know how. And the positive experience with you is great for emotional development.

Progress to drawing and writing tools (pencils, pens, crayons, chalk, brushes) and construction tools (scissors, stickers/tape, glue in all its forms, sewing needles, knitting needles). Calculation tools can be a fun and concrete way to see numbers and their relationship with each other: Standard abacus for one-to-one relationships, Chinese abacus for borrowing concepts when subtracting, and mathematical balances for multiplication equalities. I personally recommend using the computer after learning how to do processes by hand. The power of spreadsheets make more sense when you have had to apply an operation or formula to a series of numbers by hand and then tried to graph them by hand. Personally, I enjoyed using drawing triangles, protractors, and compasses which bridged drawing with geometry and was amazingly helpful in my drafting and CAD exercises.

You know you are successful 

With tool knowledge and skill, you empower your little one to see how to fix, maintain, and improve his or her world. You’ve made tool masters when “uh-oh” is followed by a request for a tool to fix the situation on their own. Frustration when something doesn’t work can be mitigated by a fix that makes it easier or even better. 

Tool usage was said to be the turning point of human evolution (homo-habilis). It’s an important step in developing the STEM “can-do” attitude and skill set as well. If you’re uncomfortable with tools, it’s a good time for you to develop your skills as well and be your child’s “learning partner” as well as role model.

See also:
  • The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments: For you, the adult to see how scientific "truths" were discovered through observation and experimental design and how they contradicted what people thought was the truth at the time.
  • Sewing School: With all the tech and STEM toys, people sometimes forget that early STEM experts (especially of the female persuasion) developed tool skills, spatial skills, and material property knowledge from crafts like sewing.
  • Coordinate Graphing: Do math problem, get the coordinates, plot by hand. Or if you master the computer tool, you can use a spreadsheet to do your drawing.
  • How to Fix Damn Near Everything: Especially good for women who never quite knew why some (men) seemed to just know how to fix things. Instead of saying "do this, do this, do this", this book describes how things like electrical wiring and plumbing are systems that all share certain essential parts, and how you can figure out what's happening and what may be missing.

Mar 4, 2016

#STEM Starts at Home: The Many Faces of Qwirkle

Qwirkle, made by Mindware, is like Scrabble with pictures. You build off the patterns of others, matching color or shape, and sometimes you get a complete set in the same line, called a "Qwirkle".
Searching for purple (image by Y. Ng)

It's a very challenging and fun game for adults, and children can play pretty competitively with their parents. Interestingly, the pieces themselves can be used with toddlers and preschoolers as well, to "scaffold" their abilities so they can build the skills needed to play the game as intended. Of course, at a very young age, the wooden tiles may just serve as payload for your little one's dump truck or purse.

If you have the game at home and your tyke doesn't eat small pieces, try these variations of the game to build up their pattern finding skills:
  • Finding the color: Invite your child to find all the reds, then the yellows, then the blues. As the variation in the pool decreases with each collection, you subconsciously build the idea that a large set can consist of smaller sets,an important concept in mathematics.
  • Finding the shape: When your child is able to distinguish shapes, invite him or her to find all the circles, squares (the diamonds may also be selected as a square for a very young child--and that wouldn't be wrong). The other shapes are more sophisticated, so observe which shapes your child thinks are similar to the one you are holding. I like to discuss with my son why he might have thought they were the same, tracing the similar features with my fingers, and also pointing out the differences. But, as he was only two at the time, I didn't get hung up on him actually learning then how to find the right pieces. And when he was more interested in being a crane and lifting up the pieces as payload, I let that be a sign that the activity had shifted gears.
  • Finding an exact match: Then there is the point when your child can find the purple circles. By finding the piece from the entire set, your little one develops scanning skills, which as a programmer, has been invaluable for me to find a pesky bug, but I know a number of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who rely on this ability in their work.
  • Building a matrix: While finding an exact match may be fun in itself, I found it quite boring. However, in order to be sure that some of the pieces weren't lost in a dump truck, I have a habit of laying out the pieces so that a single color is in a row and a single shape is in a column. If you have all the pieces, you should end up with three levels. If you do this "exercise in anality," you can have your tyke find the pieces "that go here". For example, I lay down the first level, and my son helps find the pieces that match to fill out the other levels. Later, when he can "see" which pieces should go there by using the idea of colors in rows and shapes in columns, he can help me build the first layer as well. When we are bored, we sometimes pull out trays of Mahjong tiles and create similar matrices. 
    organizing Mahjong tiles (image by Y. Ng)
  • Playing sets with repeated pieces: After the idea of color and shape are well understood, you can start off with a simplified version of the game. Each person has tiles and plays them in the row or column that has a matching color or shape. But in this case, don't worry about repeats in the same row.
  • Playing Qwirkle: And now, you have nurtured yourself a viable opponent. Good luck!
Great games or toys can be used at different levels of development and understanding. I'm happy to see that Qwirkle ranks among these.

Feb 5, 2016

#STEM Starts at Home: Touch aka Leaning About Material Properties

What to do 

From an early age, you can have your little one feel different materials: soft cloth, gooey lotion, sticky lip balm, cool metal spoons. It’s even better if the materials are safe to chew or if they make noises (rustling, crinkle, etc.) so you baby can experience them with more than one sense.
image by richardsweet (Richard Sweet),

What you are doing 

By letting your tyke experience different materials, you are adding to his or her knowledge about material properties which are important for certain technical fields, engineering construction, and scientific experiments.

If your child has a rich exposure to different materials, it will be easier for your future scientist to pick the right materials for his or her heat transfer experiment, or the right adhesive for the latest engineering prototype.

How you can grow 

As your baby grows, find other age-safe materials to share. Manage “itchy fingers” (as my father would call my fingers that constantly tried to touch everything) with touch boxes or materials that your toddler and preschooler can feel, fold, tear, or crush.

Preschoolers can progress to a take-apart box containing old or broken items. Invite them to take apart anything in the box to see how different materials are used in different ways (e.g. for shape, performance, or aesthetics).

You know you are successful

When your child responds positively to new materials and wants to experience them repeatedly, you know that you got him or her hooked on material discovery. More advanced material discovery includes: finding a material’s limit (when does it break?), determining ways to form the material (what tools and techniques can I use?), and learning how to fasten and cut the material. Be aware that there might be actual destruction of the material during this investigation!

Even as an adult engineer, I find that holding, touching, and pulling on materials continues to give me a full appreciation of a product’s design. Itchy fingers never actually go away, they just get productively redirected. 

Jan 1, 2016

#Engineering Your Projects Tip: Consensus by Doing

One problem that teachers say kids have in their engineering class is coming to consensus on how to approach the project. What often happens is the strongest personality or the kid with the most experience (or confidence) gets his or her way. This isn't always the best solution and doesn't create good team skills.
image by jazza (Jay Simmons) via

When we work with teams, we encourage them to get consensus by doing, not discussing. By prototyping the ideas students have in 10-15 minutes, they can evaluate the viability of their own idea, plus see what the others see in their minds.

Inexperienced engineers argue, harangue, or pull rank to convince others their idea is right. The best engineers know how to "prototype in the small" or make a quick-and-dirty device that demonstrates (or disproves the viability) of the essential part of their idea. Good engineers consider brainstorming a way to get all good ideas on the table, not just their own, because the solution is what matters, and that is best found with others.

Teachers can help students by giving them the words to move to action. Words like, "Sorry, I don't see what your idea is, can you draw it? prototype it?" And they can help students with more experience learn to piggyback on other's concepts, adopt ideas that make sense (even if they are not their own), and be confident enough to be okay with throwing out their ideas when they seem unfeasible or unworkable.

So, get those students to hold the arguments. This isn't a debate. More words won't help get to solution. Get them to prototype (like any good engineering process dictates), and show each other what they're thinking. Consensus will then be built by doing in reality, not debating in abstraction. Remember, the proof is always in the pudding. -- Good engineering to you all!