STEM toys inspire their way into pop culture.

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This article is written by ANDREW B. RAUPP. Here is only a short paraphrased extraction published.

If you closed your eyes and imagined an inventor, what would you imagine?

For most people, the image of a lonely genius struggling in solitude is a powerful image. From Einstein, who discovered physical formulas, to Edison in his patent office, to Steve Jobs in his garage, many of our greatest thinkers needed a lot of time and space to work out their ideas before they could astound the rest of the world with their innovations.

But some of the world’s greatest minds are not just determined to create something new. Instead, they strive to find ways to pass on new ideas to others. These inventors are also educators who solve the problem of how to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers by offering new ways of learning. They are the tinkerers, toy-makers and entrepreneurs who continue to innovate and teach students of all ages the scientific, technical, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills they need to solve tomorrow’s problems in an entertaining way.

STEM Toy v1.0

In 1974 an architecture professor was obsessed with finding a way to help his students understand and solve problems in three dimensions. After all, this is the work of architects and engineers. However, traditional schooling was too often favored at that time – and still tends to tend towards two-dimensional thinking, memorization and problem solving with pen and paper.

In order to give his students a concrete way to visualize and manipulate 3D problems kinaesthetically, the professor spent almost all of his free time assembling blocks of wood and paper and looking for ways to connect them so that architecture students could twist and turn the shapes to understand how they interacted with each other in space. The result of all these tinkering efforts was what the inventor finally called a “magic cube”.

Today, we all know it as the Magic Cube, one of the most popular puzzle games ever made – and over 450 million copies sold to prove it.

The Hungarian inventor Ernő Rubik himself was not sure at first how to solve the puzzle he created, and no wonder. Mathematicians have calculated that the magic cube has 43 trillion move combinations and is the ideal tool for exploring the concept of group theory. Since Rubik had limited experience with his newly created twisted puzzle, it took him a month to solve it alone. But this is fitting for the prototypical STEM toy: its creator passionately believes in the power of self-learning and “often bristles with the idea that the authorities are best placed to impart knowledge”.

And that’s the idea behind all the best STEM toys: learners will do whatever it takes to explore a task, apply new skills and refine effective ways of thinking to solve a problem – provided it is presented in an inherently entertaining and engaging way.

Development of the MINT toy market

The late 1960s and early 1970s welcomed the remarkable rumble of the now booming STEM toy industry, although the official acronym was not coined until the 1990s or not until the 21st century. In addition to the Magic Cube, Carlos White’s Insect Lore was an early pioneer in this field, creating a product that sent 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 started operations in 1972, which led to an enormous demand for the composite brick, which is still a staple for manufacturing rooms and playrooms around the world. Meanwhile, in the Chicago suburbs, Gil Cecchin and Arthur F. Seymour, along with their wives Carol and Maryann, began building, distributing and marketing a product to support television repair shops, and Elenco Electronics, Inc. was born. Today the company serves the world with its innovative toys, gadgets and best-selling educational products. Meanwhile, Arthur left Elenco and created a separate STEM toy brand called E-Blox, Inc., which is still family-owned and operated by family businesses.

As academic leaders began to develop curricula to better prepare students for the important scientific and technological careers that would drive the economy of the new century, toy manufacturers knowingly stepped up their play.

This article is written by ANDREW B. RAUPP

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