With the holiday season underway, gift-givers are combing the malls or scouring Amazon for the perfect presents for kids in their lives. As engineers, we recommend encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills this year. According to the Harvard Business Review, more top-performing CEOs now have engineering degrees than MBAs, so your gift could inspire someone on a path to career success. But more importantly, you might spur the good times and fond memories we recall as we think back on the STEM toys of our own childhoods.
Our favorite gift memories dispel the myth that engineers aren’t creative. We remember letting our imaginations run wild as we built with erector sets, girders and panels, and LEGO®. LEGO bricks were a favorite of Director of Project Management Josh Capparella, who today plays with the toys with his own children. “Since he was three, my son loved to follow the ‘constructions’ (as he called them) to build his new sets,” Josh explained with a chuckle. Maybe this master builder is destined to follow in Dad’s footsteps as an engineer.
Founding Principal Larry Gadbois remembers wood puzzles with interlocking pieces that formed a cube or sphere. “My mother would give them to me and my two brothers on Christmas Eve to keep us competitively and quietly engaged before the big day,” he said. Larry’s other early favorites were a gyroscope and a 1962 version of a remote-controlled vehicle (it had a wire) that floated on a cushion of air. “I loved flying it around the house.”
Fahim Nazim, Plant Engineer at Merck, also recalled receiving a remote-controlled helicopter one year. “The little machine could take-off from my palm and intrigued me to investigate its flying mechanisms.”
Toy rocket building created bonding time with Plumbing Engineer Rich Ryan and his son (now 19). “Rockets away,” Rich declared. “The success of the rocket lifting off and reaching altitudes of 700 feet was exhilarating; a successful parachute deployment was enough to turn this cool pastime into a repeated frenzy.”
Several recalled the mechanical drawing toy, Spirograph. Fire Protection Engineer Sue Murray said her interest in math and physics was spurred both by it and by the Etch-A-Sketch. “Wanting to know how the Etch-A-Sketch worked, I shaded in the whole screen so that I could see the bars and device that moved to take the magnetic sand off the screen from the back,” Sue remembered.
Inquiring Precis minds always seemed to want to know how things worked. At the risk of sounding like a Grinch, Principal Sam Colucci professed to not need toys as a kid. “I took apart anything that I wanted to see how it worked. According to my parents, I was not as good at putting things back together.”
Similar to Sam, Principal Bob Dick took EVERYTHING apart – tables, appliances, chairs, stereos, watches, even the TV. But he also enjoyed receiving drafting triangles and mechanical pencils, spurring his early ability to use a scale; a box of half-inch pipe and fittings that set his mind working; and plastic model cars that were part of his continuing passion for all things automotive.
Mark Bellino, Director of Pharmaceutical Services, also had a car craze. He loved the Spinwelder, a vintage Mattel racecar building kit. “Plus, you got to smell the melting plastics, which surely did not impact my brain cells,” he snarked.
Proving she’s right at home among the engineers, Office Manager Brenda Appenzeller admits to a lifelong love of all things Rube Goldberg-like.
Director of Process Engineering Kristina Pumphrey remembers building the latest items for her LEGO Christmas village. She’s glad that girls today aren’t discouraged from STEM interests. “A lot more research has gone into how girls learn and what is needed to encourage them in the STEM fields,” she explained. She buys GoldieBlox for the young girls in her life. “I don’t need them to choose a STEM career, but I do think it is good for them to get that exposure early so it can be fostered.”
Magformers are popular with the kids of Mechanical Department Head John Volence. “They can have fun building, be creative, and learn about geometry, colors, and magnetism all at the same time.”
Some of our favorite childhood toys no longer exist (melting plastic might, in fact, be bad for brain cells). But there are many new and classic options from which to choose. Check out the following lists of top STEM toys for 2018.
Heavy.com’s 21 Best STEM Toys for 2018: The Ultimate List: https://heavy.com/toys/2018/09/best-stem-toys/
The Toy Insider Holiday Guide STEM 10 (broken down for Preschool, Grade School, and Tweens): https://www.thetoyinsider.com/holiday_guide/stem-10/
Wishing you the happiest of holidays and hours of imagination!