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April 06, 2022

Bringing the Science of Toys to Life at Linden Meadows School

What do a remote-controlled Batmobile, a Hatchimal Pixie Crystal Flyer, and Kinetic Sand have in common?

If you answered: ‘they’re all toys made by Spin Master’, you’d be right! But more than that, they are toys that are made with a ton of science and engineering behind what makes them move, spin, change colour, shift shape, and even fly, as Vanessa Raponi, a senior product development engineer at Spin Master, demonstrated to Kendra Cleave’s Grade 5/6 class at Linden Meadows School in Winnipeg.
Vanessa Raponi is shown right with a classroom of students working shown on the left
Vanessa Raponi, senior product development engineer at Spin Master, during a “Future of Play” video session with Kendra Cleave’s Grade 5/6 class at Linden Meadows School, Pembina Trails School Division (Winnipeg).

Vanessa explained some of the scientific principles that she and her team use when they create toys and games that kids around the world play with every day. She also answered students’ questions, including how much and what kind of education she needed for her current job, and whether a Flutterbye Fairy has ever really flown into a fireplace as the viral video showed (“it made for some great quality entertainment, but that was not the intention of the product!” Vanessa laughed.)

The session was organized by The Learning Partnership in the lead up to this year’s second annual, all-virtual National Invention Convention, presented by Lead National Partner Spin Master. It gave the class of 28 enthusiastic students an opportunity engage in two hands-on experiments – part of Spin Master’s Future of Play series, which pulls back the curtain to show young minds how their favourite toys are created, perhaps even inspiring them to follow in Vanessa’s footsteps and become a toy designer or engineer. 

“By partnering with The Learning Partnership we're inspiring more students across Canada to participate in Investigate! Invent! Innovate! (I3), fostering a passion for ingenuity and creativity in Canadian youth. Vanessa and the students at Linden Meadows showed us the power of play as a tool to inspire creativity, imagination and curiosity. We hope to see not just the students at Linden Meadows, but also students in Grades 1 through 8 from across Canada join in I3 to become our future inventors and creators -- or wherever their dreams take them,” said Tammy Smitham, Spin Master's Vice President, Communications & Corporate Citizenship.
“I’m really passionate about bringing STEM to life for kids in a way that they really understand, through their toys,” said Vanessa. And although she had to visit the class virtually, she joked that she had a lot of fun doing the activities with “actual, live kids!”
Students density experiment is shown with a glass containing four different liquids
The students layered liquids of different weights in a density tower.
The first experiment was to build a density tower. Vanessa led the students through adding liquids to a tall glass container – starting with honey, then maple syrup (“the real Canadian kind, not the artificial one!” suggested Vanessa), then dish soap, vegetable oil, and finally water – seeing how the liquids remained in clearly-defined layers. This is because each of the ingredients has a different density, Vanessa explained, the principle that some liquids can sit on top or sink below others depending on their weight.
As the class dropped different items into their density towers – a marble, a paper clip, a wadded-up ball of paper – they were able to see how objects of different densities float or sink according to the density of the liquid they are in, like pool toys do.
Students gears experiment made out of cardboard is shown
The gears exercise engaged students' problem-solving and critical thinking skills as they worked to make them revolve.
The second activity involved understanding one of the basic elements of mechanical engineering: the gear. Gears, said Vanessa, are in just about everything. They are what makes objects move, from the blinking eyes on the Purse Pet (one of the latest toys Vanessa has developed), to the Batmobile, to the car sitting in your driveway. Using a template and a piece of cardboard, Vanessa showed how a gear’s notches, or teeth, connect with each other and, when they turn, can raise and lower, push and pull objects – in other words, make them move. Vanessa also explained gear ratio, a fancy term for the speed at which gears move, which varies based on their circumference or size.
“The session went very well. It really sparked the students’ interest in how the concepts and topics they learn in school can be applied to future jobs,” Kendra said. “They particularly enjoyed the gears exercise and had to work hard to make it work, making multiple attempts and applying their critical thinking skills. For example, the students were quick to realize that precise cutting and a secure thumbtack that could bear the force was necessary,” she added.

One student observed that the gears move in opposite directions when they start to spin. Many talked about the places they have seen gears in the world around them. Anson, like other students, was surprised to learn that “toys had these types of parts in them” and Serafina, like several others, said she had not known “how much work went into creating one toy.”
Aside from being fun, the experiments were exercises in collaboration and problem-solving. During the density experiment, for example, student Rodney observed that the objects they were dropping into the density tower were all too heavy to stay suspended in a higher layer. He suggested that his team use a piece of cardboard. Ilay noticed that the trouble his group was having making the gears move could be solved with a longer thumbtack. Problems identified, solutions suggested and tested – way to go, students of Linden Meadows School!
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