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May 21, 2009

For the students of MIT’s toy product design class, fun is a lot of work.

By Michael Tedder

It’s Tuesday night in the middle of finals week. Some students are doing their best to sell their friends and a group of Hasbro executives a baking pan.

But this isn’t just any baking pan: the Bend-N-Bake features aluminum insides that can be molded to produce a cake in whatever shape the heart desires. And these are not just any students; they’re in MIT’s esteemed engineering program.
The sales pitch involves a mock cooking show, dubbed “Modern Baking Technology,” a gigantic battle axe and the presentation of cakes shaped like fish, hearts and stars—all of which had to be hidden from ravenous dorm mates.
In addition to being one of the oddest final projects ever, the 5th annual Playsentations is the final step for the students of MIT’s Toy Product Design 2.00b.
Designed to both show the oft-overlooked creative aspects of engineering and to give students an introductory do-it-yourself experience with buildings and design, the class guides students from idea to prototype to final presentation.
With the help of upperclassmen in the engineering program and Hasbro executives, this year has yielded a banner crop, ranging from gravity defying building blocks to rock ’n’ roll robot penguins.
“It sounds like a simple class, but it’s really pretty complicated,” says David Stiebel, whose team developed the wearable drum machine, BLIX. He admits that some of his fellow MIT students “probably picture us playing with blocks or Legos or something, I don’t think they realize how much complexity or how much actual engineering and thinking goes into this class.”

Toy Design 101

Back in 2004, MIT graduate student Barry Kudrowitz and a friend were doing “Nerf-related research for Hasbro” when they were asked to teach a sports product design class. They changed it to toy design.
“When it began, we had two lab instructors,” Kudrowitz says. “Now we have 30.” 
Eventually, Kudrowitz (who is now pursuing his Ph.D.) was leading the course while also working as a teaching assistant for Dr. David Wallace’s newly instituted freshmen mechanical engineering class. After a year of the classes existing concurrently, Wallace combined the two, putting Kudrowitz in charge.
“He has an excellent rapport with freshman students,” Wallace says of Kudrowitz.
In turn, Kudrowitz turned his class’s finals presentation into the public, multimedia Playsentations.
“The goal is to get [students] excited about product design,” Wallace says. “Products have to appeal to the users to be successful, so thinking about aesthetics is inherent to the process.”
This year, the toy product design class topped out at 80 students. Kudrowitz says that several students have gone on to intern at Hasbro, and at least one scored a job. Several others have started their own toy companies, though the road to such payoffs is hardly child’s play.
“The truth is that toy design is probably much harder than design of any other product,” Kudrowitz says.  “It has to be extremely safe, extremely inexpensive, durable, designed and manufactured in a short amount of time, and—this is perhaps the hardest one—it has to be aesthetically pleasing for the user and the purchaser.”  

Not All Fun and Games

While toy product design certainly breaks the mold of the school’s typical engineering classes, many of the students quickly discovered that an unusual MIT class is still, well, an MIT class. They also found out that it’s not always fun trying to make something fun.
Matthew Falk of the Sketch-A-Roo team, who worked all semester to develop a Kangaroo-themed vibrating sketchpad that produces whimsically distorted drawings, says that the night before the presentation, “part of the toy’s internal assembly actually fell apart, so we were freaking out.”
Undeterred, the team “came up with a new design and put it into action, and it’s actually working a lot better than it did before,” explains a relieved Falk.
Other teams weren’t so lucky. Despite working to solder the wires five minutes before the presentation, the makers of motion-based sound manipulator Audio Jack had to move through their presentation without a working prototype.
“There was an epic failure ten minutes before we had to go on. We had to hit it on the head to get the wires to connect,” says team member Donald Eng, noting that knowing how to fix their toy “before the presentation, that would have been helpful.” (In fairness to the group, the Audio Jack was later working fine during the team’s interview; Kudrowitz says that the team won’t be graded harshly for the malfunction.)
Kat Johnson of the Barnyard Booms team says that product design is “something that not a lot of students get introduced to at MIT,” which explains why Kudrowitz feels it’s important to show his students that the hard science of engineering can always benefit from a bit of creativity. And that fun can be found anywhere, even during finals week.
“It’s definitely stressful, but it’s a good kind of stress. It was a lot of fun. We’ve all been working on this 24/7 for at least the past five days,” says Serenade member Michaela Lavan, “And, wow, we have this awesome robot flower. I can’t imagine any other final project that would be as fulfilling as this.”

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