The Toys That Made Us (Engineers)

Looking back, an engineer clearly sees how the toys and games from childhood led her on a pathway to the profession.

By Nicole Woon, SWE Editorial Board

Toys and games are fun pastimes, but some went the extra mile and planted the early seeds for my interest in engineering. Whether I was tinkering with physical parts or approaching a problem from different perspectives, I was able to learn new skills, engage with others competitively and collaboratively, and develop traits such as resilience. Here are the toys and games that had the biggest impact on my engineering mindset. Perhaps they influenced you just as much!

Mouse Trap: This is the board game I remember most nostalgically playing with my parents. The goal is to move around the board and be the last mouse standing, baiting other players to get near the trap while avoiding being caught yourself. Mouse Trap’s physical set pieces range from a cage to a bathtub to a staircase, and make the set feel larger than life as it’s built over the board. The chain reaction as the marble travels around obstacles remains a delight to watch, and is an excellent introduction to Rube Goldberg machines.

The complexity of the contraption also teaches the importance of simplicity. If fewer steps were needed to trigger the trap, it would mean fewer points of failure and thus a greater likelihood that a mouse would get caught. Put into practice in my job as a product manager for software, streamlining the tasks that our customers must take means we can create a more intuitive user experience and help them achieve their goals more efficiently.

Credit: skodonnell

Etch A Sketch: One of the original inductees to the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Etch A Sketch has delighted children and adults alike since 1960. You can draw on the screen by twisting two white knobs, one that draws a line horizontally and the other vertically. Give the toy a good shake and your lines magically disappear.

The science behind it is a mixture of nontoxic aluminum powder and plastic beads, which help the powder flow smoothly, within the plastic case. When you shake the case, powder coats the glass screen to make it appear like a blank canvas. A brass stylus connected to the knobs via a pulley system etches powder from the screen to display your design.

Creatives of all backgrounds have embraced the toy, with some taking it to the next level by crafting intricate art or leveraging familiarity with electromechanics and programming by wiring it up to an open-source electronics platform such as Arduino.

Jenga: This wooden block tower game challenges players to remove a block from any lower level and stack it on top, being careful to not make the structure collapse. Many elements of civil and structural engineering come into play. For example, while the wooden blocks look similar, no two are cut with the same exact dimensions and rest on each other unevenly. This means you can remove non-load-bearing pieces without affecting the integrity of the tower. The tensile strength of materials, the importance of having a surface with a strong foundation, and the impact of rotational forces are other factors that come into play.

The game can also be used in the workplace as an analogy to educate others about risk. If viewed from the top, the building might look sturdy; viewing the structure from another angle, however, reveals gaps that illustrate how vulnerabilities can impact the overall system.

Operation: The ultimate test in hand-eye coordination, this game challenges you to remove plastic pieces from the patient Cavity Sam. Each piece is literally and whimsically translated from an ailment, from “Charlie Horse” to “Butterflies in Stomach.” I would get nervous playing because of the loud buzz that happened if your tweezers touched the metal edges.

Looking back, this might have been my first encounter with a closed circuit — my electrical engineer dad would be proud! Honing my fine motor skills came up later in life when I interned in a bioengineering lab. They had a da Vinci robotic system for conducting minimally invasive surgeries, and I got to try my hand using practice equipment to move objects from one peg to another. My experiences in this lab ultimately set me on the path to pursue engineering for my college degrees.

Credit: artisteer

Slinky: This coiled helical spring toy is limited only by your imagination. Growing up, I would stretch and compress it like an accordion, play with it like a retractable yo-yo, or watch it “walk” down the stairs at my grandparents’ home.

The Slinky doubles as an excellent way to demonstrate physics principles. Taking the staircase scenario as an example, when you place one end of the toy on a lower step and start its tumble downward, gravity takes over by converting the potential energy into kinetic energy.

This energy transfers in a longitudinal wave pattern until it reaches the bottom of the stairs. It also makes you think about the material the Slinky is made of, the shape and diameter of the coils, and the length of the toy, all elements that factor into product design and manufacturing.

Tetris: Tetris is a block-stacking video game with a simple goal. As blocks fall from the top of the screen, you move and rotate them. If a full row gets filled, those blocks vanish and you earn points. Whether you played it on a Game Boy, PC, or even a TI-84 Plus graphing calculator (fond junior high school memories!), you’re likely familiar with how the game hooks you in and keeps you in a state of flow until the pieces reach the top of the screen and it’s game over.

This is a crash course in spatial orientation, the ability to identify the position or direction of objects in space. Results from a 1994 study even showed that playing Tetris improved mental rotation time and spatial visualization time.¹ Puzzles testing these skills showed up in screening exams when I interviewed with some engineering firms, challenging me to view objects from different angles and manipulate them successfully in order to move onto the next round.

Nicole Woon (she, her) is a SharePoint product manager at Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). Recognized as a SWE Distinguished New Engineer in 2021, she is an active SWE life member and currently serves on the nominating committee and the editorial board.

Okagaki, L. et al. (1994). Effects of Video Game Playing on Measures of Spatial Performance: Gender Effects in Late Adolescence, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.