Monday, September 08, 2008

Toy Challenge Redux 






After three years without an invitation, LATDA was finally asked back to be a judge at the annual Sally Ride Science TOYchallenge. Unfortunately I was the only LATDA representative who could attend, and had to rely on photos of each entry our team reviewed to keep them straight in my mind. (Sorry about the positioning of the photos. This is my first time trying to post images.)

The venue changed from the Aviation Museum to Qualcomm Stadium – an exciting prospect for the contestants to have the entire stadium to themselves. Although the stadium seemed larger, the size of the competition seems to have shrunk since 2005 (reviewed in this blog for May 2005 http://www.latdamuseum.org/weblog/2005_05_01_archive.html). I believe there were 60+ entries for this year, whereas in 2005 there were closer to 100. There were four teams of judges – each team consisting of 4-5. It turned out that many of the judges were returnees, having four or more competitions under their belts. I was surprised to recognize one of the judges as a former student judge from 2005.

As usual, the judges consisted of professionals and students from the science and engineering spectrum (it was, after all, sponsored and organized by Sally Ride SCIENCE). Among the minority fields represented were myself and Deborah Ryan, department chair in Toy Design at Otis College of Art and Design.

Although the competition is aimed at encouraging young girls to compete in fields that could lead to careers in science and engineering, boys were allowed to be part of each team. Similarly the judges were gender-balanced and I had an equal difficulty understanding any of the engineering patter that was going on regardless of whether a male or female engineer was speaking. They, however, seemed to understand one another perfectly.

My team was one of the two judging the very large category of Games for the Family. It seems that many kids want to take a crack at designing a better board game – something that addresses their interests more than just providing a learning challenge. Consequently there were two games designed around pets and pet care, two games using penguins as features, one with many Disneyland references, one with shopping in a mall as a theme, and one with a pirate theme. (Surprisingly, the pirate theme was injected because of girls lobbying for it and not the boys on the team – thank you Johnny Depp.) There was one game that seemed wholly original that used lasers and mirrors, but when we got back to confer with the other judges, one of them said such a game already existed – and she owned one! I kept worrying during the presentation that someone would be blinded by accident.

Overall the games varied from being sweet and non-stimulating to being so complex that I couldn’t follow the instructions in the seven-minute presentations. Many of the games simply combined trivia questions with variations on board shape and density (more short cuts, more wild cards, or more penalties).

The winner of the overall West Coast competition was one of the groups we judged. The game for the family was called Puff that Penguin. What made it stand out was that it a.) wasn’t a board game b.) involved some physical activity that made the players look very silly c.) required a lot of actual engineering processes like turning kinetic energy into another form of energy, by using “a foot-powered vortex generator”. It also had an altruistic component – a brochure directing the “buyer” to a site for endangered penguin adoption.

Unfortunately this year there wasn’t a lot of extra time to check out entries from the other categories. The judging was very fast and efficient and the number of entries exceeded what could be viewed in the time allotted.

It was very inspiring to see the efforts made by these kids. It made us wonder if there might be other variations of this type of competition – kids designing toys for themselves – that might emphasize other values than science and engineering. The age group was just right. Old enough to have some history of toys, but not too old to be jaded into submission by advertising and marketing.

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