Every budding young engineer and product designer develops a lifelong fascination with the mechanical and scientific foundations of putting stuff together and understanding how it all works. From simple shapes to complex gears, their journey begins with unstructured play and a sense of creative wonder. Here are some gift ideas we recommend for young aspiring product designers, engineers and inventors.
What future construction magnate wouldn’t want to play with a toy like this? Lego® has set the gold standard for making hundreds of interchangeable kits like this one which get the young engineer involved in putting machines together and understanding how they work. They’re durable and parts can be mixed-and-matched with other kits to create a nearly endless variety of new or hybrid machines. Lego® also develops stories, movies and characters that encourage young people to get hooked on the ever-expanding Lego® universe, and they’re “tech” enough for even teenagers to get away with playing with toys.
Robots have been popular since the science-fiction heyday of the 50’s. Interactive robots like the award-winning MiP® use next-generation technologies such as gyroscopic balance (just like a Segueway®), collision avoidance sensors and hand-gesture detection. It comes with 7 built-in programmed modes, and a smartphone app allows for limitless customized motions. Expect that in the future more and more electronic devices will be developed with the connected smartphone generation in mind.
Basic chemistry and physics are essential for expanding the minds and imaginations of curious young people, but even adults can learn a thing or two (or remember what they forgot in school) by conducting their own experiments with test tubes, beakers, gears and levers.
Times may change but the basic elements of machine design and the chemistry of materials is literally timeless and endlessly fascinating. And the special reward that comes from feeling something useful come to life under your own fingers is exactly the right kind of magic necessary to make learning feel more like play.
Too often young women have been excluded or intimidated by traditional science curricula, and if their native interest is not nurtured at a young age it may wither and die in later life. Therefore companies like Yellow Scope and others make science kits specifically tailored to girls to make science education more inclusive.
Not only engineers and scientists need to make use of both basic and advanced mathematical concepts. Machinists, CAD programmers and CNC machine operators must be comfortable with algebra, calculus and trigonometry – but who likes to study all that stuff when you’re just a kid?
Toys like Zometool® offer a stress-free way to construct basic and complex shapes that illustrate mathematical and physical concepts, including molecular models, Platonic Solids and hundreds more. Greek geometry meets quantum physics, but it’s so much fun they’ll forget they’re learning.
Lego® may be great for pre-fabricated machines, but if you want to learn engineering principles on your own then one of the great toys of all time is the wonderful K’nex® system.
From a bag of assorted gears, struts, wheels and connectors it’s possible to build anything that you can dream up. In addition, K’nex® has done a great job in teaming up with accredited educational institutions to support STEM programs with dedicated construction sets for different age groups and subjects, complete with teacher’s guides, activities, worksheets and even building competitions to inspire young architects and civil engineers to create the next great rollercoaster.
Mechanical and electrical devices (called mechatronix) go naturally together in the modern world, but some folks have a lot of trouble understanding or working with electrical circuits for the simple reason that the forces involved are essentially invisible. One may see the effect but not the cause, unlike the case with purely mechanical devices. To get comfortable making and manipulating electronic circuits, toy makers like Elenco® are picking up where Heathkits® left off and making accessible, fun and colorful circuit boards for young electrical engineers, such as the Snap Circuits® line of kits that offer color-coded, easy-to-follow diagrams for creating hundreds of different electrical effects.
And there’s also a phone app (but of course!) which allows advanced learners to download and share new circuits and their attendant effects.
So there you have it, the building blocks of a solid foundation in math, engineering, physics, electronics and chemistry. Everything the young mind needs to grow up to be the next Nikola Tesla or Elon Musk. (Now you know why Musk named his electric car the Tesla.) Any of the above toys and kits would make a great present for the young or young-at-heart, but if you want more ideas may we recommend the wonderful website dedicated to smart toys and games, www.fatbraintoys.com. If you can’t find it there, it probably doesn’t exist.