Child’s Play: Fourth Graders Provide Unique Feedback for IPRO Toy Design Course



By Tad Vezner
IPRO Toy Design Studio

Jonathan Hodgkins started off his speech in the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship’s foyer with a statement that somehow kept a couple dozen fourth-graders quiet.

“The way I look at the world now is, everything is something that someone thought about,” said Hodgkins, an adjunct professor in Illinois Institute of Technology’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program. Standing beside a slideshow on how modern tools could turn ideas into blueprints and blueprints into solid models in relatively no time, he added, “Right now we’re living in a time where you have an idea, and that same day you can make it.”

The fourth graders, from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, had other things to distract them: Soon enough they were going to get to play with a bunch of toys, and tell the toys’ inventors what they thought of them. Each was urged to do so with the uninhibited inquisitiveness and candor of a child.

“Ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Don’t worry about hurting feelings. We actually need that.…You guys are the most important thing in this design process,” Illinois Tech Professor Bo Rodda told the students as they began squirming in their seats.

Minutes later, the kids were off—rushing to an adjacent room where anxious, but perhaps equally excited, Illinois Tech students awaited judgment.

Despite Hodgkins’s speech, the toys the kids were evaluating had taken more than just a day to build. They were the post-midterm creations of students enrolled in the IPRO program’s Big Monster Toy Design Studio, where eight teams—each consisting of several students—had been forced to whittle down multiple ideas into a single toy that they believed would be marketable, with a little feedback from industry professionals.

There was a spinning, motorized contraption laden with tiny buckets, which the kids bounced ping pong balls into. There was a Jenga-esque tower that had to be cautiously dismantled with tiny plastic hammers, with a forlorn owl perched on top, waiting to be knocked down. There was the “Caterpuller,” a series of roller balls interlocked like a caterpillar’s body, which the kids gleefully pulled across the floor by a string.

“I’ve taught 40 IPROs; this is the most popular course I’ve ever taught,” said Rodda, who assists Hodgkins in the course.

Perhaps that’s because the course perfectly encapsulates one of the key components of IPRO: having students from different majors and colleges work together.

“Toys are universally fun. It gives [students] the perfect medium to collaborate,” Rodda said.

Added Hodgkins, “They’re working as a team right away, from the get-go. Lots of maker spaces at universities are underutilized. It’s great to have one that we live in and utilize every week. From day one they are building something.”

Alejandro Reyes (ARCH 4th Year), on the Caterpuller team, agreed, “The value [of this course] is in the collaboration with students in other majors. Architects usually exist in their own spheres.”

Added team member Ivy Kang (COM 4th Year), “I learned a lot of things I couldn’t learn from my major: how to 3D print, how to cut wood, modeling.”

Computer science students Elizabeth Paniagua (CS ’23) and Ridgen Atsatsang (AI 3rd Year) also highlighted the collaboration, as well as the skills they wouldn’t necessarily garner in a rigid curriculum.

“I was expecting to get some kind of creativity, and I did,” said Paniagua. “Most of the academic work we do [in computer science] is really structured. It was fun working with other people we’re not used to working with.”

“In computer science, you’re on a computer alone a lot,” added Atsatsang. “Here you get a lot of collaboration, and there’s a lot of public speaking and pitching. You’re practicing that feedback loop of working on something, innovating, getting feedback, and working on it again.”

After an hour of playtime, the kids—each given $700 in play money to split between the toys—darted between the stations to “donate” to their favorite prototype.

Their teacher, educator Tye Johnson of the Lab Schools, watched them and smiled. “I wish we would’ve known about this sooner. We do a lot of maker challenges in our class and talk about it a lot. I can’t wait to incorporate what they’re doing here,” she said.

In the end, the Caterpuller accumulated the biggest pile of play money, though all the toys received a substantial stack. The Caterpuller also won its industry category during IPRO’s “Innovation Day,” a showcase of dozens of student projects from all of Illinois Tech’s colleges and institutes.

Rodda and Hodgkins noted that Big Monster Toys, a Chicago-based toy design studio that partnered with IPRO for the course, had judged all the toys during the course’s live midterm event—and had shown specific interest in the Caterpuller prototype. The company said that it would be receptive to potentially pitching it to toy manufacturers.

“It’s good for [the Lab School students] to be able to see this applied in real-life settings,” Johnson said, “and it’s good for them to see it now. Creativity wanes as you get older, but it doesn’t have to.”