Changing the narrative through engineering and creativity

Changing the narrative through engineering and creativity

[Graduation Spotlight: Ella Gardiner, BEng in Mechatronic Engineering]

Goldieblox® is an American company that was started by a female civil engineering graduate who recognised a gap in the toy market for promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) toys for girls. While the company has succeeded in the USA, it does not market its products in Africa, and importing the toys is expensive. Drawing inspiration from this success story, Ella Gardiner knew she had to explore a similar project for Africa, particularly focusing on toys that would help educate young South African girls about STEM, particularly engineering, for her final year project (skripsie).

“Studies show that parents tend to buy their children gendered toys even when a gender-neutral option is available,” says Ella, who will graduate with a BEng degree in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering from Stellenbosch University’s (SU) December graduation.

“Typically, male-gendered toys focus on technology and construction, promoting spatial awareness and problem-solving skills, whereas female-gendered toys focus on nurturing and beauty, enforcing maternal roles. Very few engineering toys targeted toward girls are available in South Africa.”

Ella set out to use her engineering skills to change this narrative. Her inspiration came from a combination of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) toys available in South Africa, such as 4M®and Bright Sparks™. “Both were headed in the right direction, except that 4M® has no girl toys involving engineering concepts, and Bright Sparks™ only has toys in the form of insects, cars and robots, which might not typically interest a girl,” she explains.

Ella took aspects from a crystal terrarium for a unicorn for girls and a solar-powered robotic dinosaur for boys and devised a solution to the problem: a solar-powered unicorn that can walk and flap its wings. The toy consists of separate pieces that the child can assemble into the unicorn while following the story of Aisha, the little girl who wants to see her unicorn come to life. Core engineering concepts are explained, such as how a photovoltaic cell provides solar power to a motor and how the motor drives a gearbox that, in turn, works a crank-and-shaft mechanism. She designed all the parts on Autodesk Inventor, which she 3D printed at the Engineering Faculty.

“In addition to designing and constructing the toy, I needed to find a way to make it accessible to the average South African schoolgirl. This is where the accompanying storybook comes in. Not only do girls prefer to play with toys that include a story element, but the story also includes a main character who serves as a role model to young girls, encouraging their curiosity and confidence in STEM,” she explains.

“It also makes the toy more accessible to girls, even in households where parents may not be educated in STEM, as the story explains all the concepts demonstrated in the toy in an accessible manner.”

However, the project did not come without its challenges. Ella had to learn a lot about user experience design. “Every step of the way, consideration needed to be given to how the toy would look and if a child would be able to assemble it on their own while ensuring that it worked properly,” she says.

“The production method had its limitations in size and strength, and it was challenging to get all the correct tolerances right so that all 32 pieces of the unicorn would fit together. I had also hoped to involve children directly with the development of the toy. However, one needs to obtain ethical clearance for any research involving minors, and the controls are quite stringent with a very lengthy process.”

Projects like these are valuable as they explore the alternative sides of engineering that one might take time to consider. “I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on such a creative project, allowing me to combine the engineering design skills I have learned over the past four years with my passion for creativity to create something that will inspire the future generation. I thank Prof Deborah Blaine (Associate Professor: Mechanics Division) for affording me this opportunity and being an excellent supervisor throughout the process.”

Photo: (f.l.t.r.) A CAD model of the solar powered Unicorn toy, alongside the final product (250mm x 300mm). A collage featuring some images used in the accompanying storybook, showcasing Ella Gardiner’s innovative journey in designing and bringing to life a STEM-inspired toy for young South African girls.

[Article by Amber Viviers]