Cogs’ worth | Meet the scientists on a mission ‘for a better STEM toy market’

A team of STEM toy specialists is calling for a major rethink from toy companies and their approach to developing products for the educational toy market, citing that ‘too many today begin by offering their own solutions first.’

Upper Story is the US team behind an endeavour to encourage new strategies in the development of STEM toys by better pinpointing the ‘problems in education and gaps in knowledge,’ and developing toys to help solve them.

Co-founded by Alyssa and Paul Boswell, Upper Story burst onto the scene with the launch of its Turing Tumble, a game through which children build mechanical computers powered by marbles. A Toy of the Year finalist, the product has gone on to secure accolades from global platforms, putting the inventor duo on the world map.

This year sees the pair return with the launch of Spintronics, a system in which mechanical circuits can be constructed with cogs and chain links in order to solve puzzles, while teaching kids the science behind electronics. 

The game, now the focus of a Kickstarter project that has already smashed a crowdfunding goal of £52,000, takes on a Steampunk look that flows into its corresponding storybook of a young girl adept at clockmaking. The idea of the two together is to convey the similarities between clockmaking and electronics through ‘the manipulation of energy.’

It feeds directly in to Upper Story’s ethos of making the abstract tangible through play, the crux of the team’s strategy of ‘plugging the gaps in education and understanding.’

“Toys are powerful. Our brains are built for playing with them – they are tangible and touchable. We can’t help but play with them until we master them,” Paul Boswell, co-founder of Upper Story told ToyNews.

In contrast, many of the subjects important in STEM are abstract and intangible. You can’t play with them all, making it difficult to wrap our minds around them. For us, making educational toys means making toys that bring important, abstract concepts down into a tangible form that can be played with.”

At the centre of this approach, Boswell suggested, is the pair’s approach to the way the company chooses what products to develop.

“A lot of companies start by defining the specifications of the toy they want to make,” he said. “Instead, we start by choosing the big problem in education that we want to solve. The advantage of our approach is that whatever products we make are guaranteed to solve an important problem and have value. 

“The disadvantage is that it’s risky. What if we work on a problem for years and never find a solution?”

“We would love to see more educational toy companies start with the problem, not the solution. What are the important problems in education and how can we create toys that solve them?”

Both educators in their former roles, Alyssa and Paul Boswell share a common interest in finding gratification in making products that help children (and adults alike) discover new concepts ‘in a way they can understand and enjoy.’ The pair aren’t shy about vocalising their issue with “many STEM toys today.”

“There are a lot of products out there in the STEM space, but ironically, there’s not a lot of innovation in the products,” said Boswell. “I think there’s two reasons for that: First, it takes a lot of time to research and develop something truly new. Product cycles at many companies are only six to 12 months. Spintronics has taken over three years so far, and will be close to four by the time we are delivering.

“Second, it’s rare to find scientists in the toy industry. I think that makes it hard to understand the sorts of toys that are truly helpful, to see the gaps in what’s available, and to innovate.

“STEM toy designers don’t have much choice but to remake toys they’ve already seen.”

Alongside its game system of cogs and chain links (as well as a box load of resistors, capacitors, ammeters, and more), Spintronics comes with a corresponding story book that attempts to straddle the centuries in its style and feel. 

“When I first got the parts for Spintronics working, I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if some clockmaker stumbled across this, not in the 21st century, but in the 19th century? If electronics weren’t yet a thing, would spintronics have taken its place in the world?

“The main character in the story is a cheeky girl who’s a whizz at clockmaking. She hates doing the laundry and creates Spintronics to help her do her laundry automatically. It grows from there.

“Our guiding creative direction was the question, ‘If a young Hermione Granger made these parts, what would they look like?’”

Upper Story is now currently in the process of building a global fanbase. Its Spintronics Kickstarter page has already hit almost £650,000 from over 6,000 backers with 16 days still remaining for the campaign. On top of that, the company is now seeing more business across Europe than in the US; opportunity, it states, for helping encourage a wider STEM toy market to rethink its general approach to the topic.

“We would love to see more educational toy companies start with the problem, not the solution,” said Boswell. “What are the important problems in education and how can we create toys that solve them?

“Lord knows there are plenty of difficult subjects to teach. What can we do to make it easier, quicker, more memorable, and more fun to learn them?”

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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