Playful Learning Lab Director AnnMarie Thomas Named Trailblazer Fellow
AnnMarie Thomas, the founder/director of the Playful Learning Lab (PLL) at the University of St. Thomas was awarded the OSHWA Trailblazer’s Fellowship.
The PLL is an undergraduate research lab that focuses on the intersection of Art, Technology, and PK-12 Education. I’m fortunate to work with faculty colleagues from other departments such as Music Education, Physics, and Emerging Media. Over the years some of our projects/collaborations have included:
- Partnering with OK Go to develop OK Go Sandbox (the band’s videos and lesson plans for educators),
- A nearly decade-long partnership with Metro Deaf School developing STEAM classes, camps, and programs for their students (who are Deaf and DeafBlind) (such as the afterschool program shown here
- The development of engineering classes and demonstrations that use Flying Trapeze (and other circus arts) to explore physics
Most relevant to her work with open source hardware, though, is the Squishy Circuits project. Over a decade ago, Annmarie was wanting a way to teach young daughters about circuits, and with the help of an amazing first-year undergraduate engineering student, Sam Johnson, we created a method for building simple circuits that relied on two recipes for homemade sculpting dough; one that was very salty (and conductive) and one that was not salty (and worked as an insulator for electricity.) We decided to share all of our recipes and parts lists on line, and the team was amazed by how quickly the idea was embraced by teachers and parents around the world. This was the Playful Learning Lab’s first foray into open source hardware (or as we preferred, “open source squishy ware.”) This work led to the creation of a company, that is run by a former PLL member.
Annmare was an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at the time her team developed Squishy Circuits, that project played an important role in my tenure portfolio. Happily, I received tenure, and have gone on to become the rank of Full Professor, in both the School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Opus College of Business School of Entrepreneurship. She also teaches in the university’s School of Education, in both the Engineering Education program (which she co-founded) and the Education Leadership department.
The focus of the yearlong trailblazer’s project for her will be examining the what and the where of Open Source Hardware in PK-12 Education. Her team of undergraduate researchers, overseen by Annmarie and my PLL faculty colleagues (Douglas Orzolek, Jeff Jalkio, and John Keston) are undertaking a large-scale literature review process to see where PK-12 usage of Open Source Hardware is showing up in scholarly peer-reviewed publications. They will also be compiling in-depth case studies on how some of these projects were developed in academic settings (by faculty and graduate/undergraduate students.) PLL are also aware that many of the teachers and extracurricular programs that use open source hardware are not publishing this information, so PLL will also be developing and distributing surveys to educators in hopes of getting a fuller picture of the ways in which they use open source hardware, and why.
This program gives opportunities for talented undergraduate students to actively learn about open-source hardware.