STEM Toys Inspire Their Way Into Popular Culture
Toymakers and brands lend a hand to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education
If you were to close your eyes and imagine an inventor, what would you picture?
For most people, the image of a lone genius toiling away in solitude is a strong one. From Einstein figuring out physics formulas, to Edison in his patent office and Steve Jobs in his garage, many of our greatest thinkers needed lots of time and a space to work out their ideas before stunning the rest of the world with their innovations.
But some of the world’s greatest minds aren’t just determined to make something new. Instead, they strive to find ways to pass novel ideas on to others. These inventors are also educators, solving the problem of how to raise the next generation of scientists and engineers by providing new ways of learning. They are the tinkerers, toymakers, and entrepreneurs who continue to innovate, providing fun ways for students of all ages to internalize the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills that they will need to solve the problems of tomorrow.
STEM Toy v1.0
In 1974, a professor of architecture was obsessed with finding a way to help his students understand and solve problems in three dimensions. This is, after all, the work of architects and engineers. However, back then traditional schooling too often favored — and still tends to lean towards two-dimensional thinking, rote memorization and pen-and-paper problem solving.
To give his students a concrete way to visualize and manipulate 3D problems kinesthetically, the professor spent nearly all of his free time assembling blocks of wood and paper, searching for ways to connect them that would let architectural students twist and turn the shapes to understand how they interacted with each other in space. The result of all of that tinkering was what the inventor ended up calling a “Magic Cube.”
Today, we all know this as a Rubik’s Cube, one of the most popular puzzle toys ever made — and over 450 million sold to prove it.
Hungarian inventor Ernő Rubik himself wasn’t sure exactly how to solve the puzzle he had created at first, and no wonder. Mathematicians have calculated that the Rubik’s Cube has over 43 quintillion move combinations, and is the ideal tool for exploring the concept of group theory. Rubik, having limited experience with his newly-created twisty puzzle, took a month to solve it on his own. But this is fitting for the prototypical STEM toy: its maker passionately believes in the power of self-teaching and often “bristles at the idea that those in authority are in the best position to impart knowledge.”
And that is the idea behind all the best STEM toys: learners will do whatever it takes to explore a task, apply new skills, and hone effective ways of thinking to solve a problem — provided that it is presented in an inherently fun and engaging way.
STEM Toy Market Evolution
The late 1960s and early 70s welcomed notable rumblings of the now-booming STEM toy industry, although the official acronym wouldn’t be coined until the 1990s or brought into wide use until the twenty-first century. In addition to the Rubik’s Cube, Carlos White’s Insect Lore was an early pioneer in this space, creating a product that shipped caterpillars to children so they could see the process of metamorphosis with their own eyes and then release a butterfly into the wild. Lego USA began operations in 1972, leading to a huge demand for the interlocking brick, which is still a staple of makerspaces and playrooms around the world.
Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Chicago, Gil Cecchin and Arthur F. Seymour along with their wives Carol and Maryann began building, distributing and marketing a product to help television repairmen and Elenco Electronics, Inc. was born. It now serves the world with its innovative toys, gadgets and bestselling educational products. Arthur has since left Elenco and has gone on to start a separate STEM toy brand named E-Blox, Inc. — both remain family owned and operated companies.
As academic leaders began to develop curriculum to better prepare students for the important science and technology careers that would drive the economy of the new century, toymakers wittingly stepped up their game.
Large companies like Fisher-Price followed suit. It partnered with Compaq to make more realistic electronic toys in the mid-1990s, and by the 2010s they were making toys designed to teach programming and coding skills to kids as young as age three.
The Rise Of The STEM Toy
STEM Toys Can Help All Students, But Are All STEM Toys Helpful?
Today, thanks to innovative manufacturers as well as “edupreneurs,” individual inventors, and toy companies of all sizes, the global market for STEM toys is expected to reach revenues of $9.5 billion by the year 2025. Though STEM toys are just a small splice of the overall toy market, it’s no doubt one of the fastest-growing segments.
One can now find STEM-themed toys online and in their own aisles at Target, stuffed end caps at office supply stores like Staples and even center displays at some of the most unlikely of places — Michaels which is known mostly for its art supplies. With major retailers firmly on board, STEM toys are as much a part of childhood today as Slinkys and hula hoops were in decades past.
The Real Value of STEM Toys
The best STEM toys support learning and help encourage critical thinking. They instill a love for design and exploration. But creative toymakers are often the overlooked, unsung heroes of the STEM movement. These passionate inventors and designers took the dream of educators and brought it into the public consciousness in a way that traditional pedagogy could never achieve. STEM toys are the keystone in the arch that bridges the gap between school and home.
And this connection is crucial. Researchers have long known that strong school-home connections reinforce lessons and democratize learning by turning the whole world into a classroom where students become self-motivated learners. Best practices encourage teachers to develop projects and activities that involve parents and draw connections between schoolwork and real life. These connections strengthen community and support deeper, more critical thinking.
Such skills are key when facilitating solid STEM learning outcomes, and toymakers leapt to the task of filling the gap. In doing so, they created real positive buzz around STEM learning in general. Witnessing firsthand often incredibly dry concepts brought to life with colorful toys, some parents found it much easier to accept the movement. As toy shelves began to fill with an assortment of products donning beautiful packaging marked “STEM”, it tangibly began to deliver a somewhat abstract and intimidating concept into the mainstream. Parents were now free to embrace the idea that play could be more valuable and that they could support their child’s learning on their own, not just in the classroom.
This was the final piece of the puzzle that took STEM from an educational buzzword — one that could have easily gone the way of so many pedagogical fads — and turned it into a powerful movement that has captured the imagination and attention of dueling politicians, school boards, creative teachers, and fun-loving families alike. Toymakers managed to do what even the most civic-minded educational leaders could not: they made STEM accessible for all stakeholders.
A STEM Day To Remember
For a perfect example of the influence that toy companies have on the overall [STEM education] movement, one needs look no further than National STEM Day. Celebrated across the country on November 8th, STEM Day is meant to shine a spotlight on the importance of strong STEM education for today’s youth. Many schools celebrate with fun STEM activities, and even NASA has recommendations on making the day both inspirational and educational.
But do you know why STEM Day lands on November 8th? It’s not because a group of university professors or government officials decreed it. It’s because MGA Entertainment, one of the world’s largest privately held toy companies, did the work to establish the day to support STEM while promoting their Project Mc2 Franchise of dolls, apps, and entertainment. In the Project Mc2 world, a group of smart girls work in a secret organization called NOV8 (pronounced “innovate”). The Nov. 8 date for National STEM Day in America was created as a result.
Although #NOV8 may have initially appeared like a brand promotional strategy, it — like so many STEM toys, games and puzzles — has enriched everyone’s connection to the movement as a whole. And for this, we all owe a debt of gratitude to toymakers and their associated brands large and small. Their creativity is leading to a bright future for young people everywhere.
An iteration of this article was originally featured in Newsweek on November 12th, 2020 and updated for Medium on November 14th, 2020.