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Santa’s Best Helpers: Elves or Engineers?

Pile of LEGOs.

How do Santa and his elves build all those toys?

That’s a question for which UT engineering students recently got some hands-on insight, thanks to CEE Assistant Professor Nicholas Wierschem’s first-year studies class, “The Physics, Science, and Engineering Behind Your Favorite Toys.”

Nicholas Wierschem.

Nicholas Wierschem

Through the class, students learned to appreciate not just the toys they may get this holiday, but also the engineering behind them.

While toys might seem to be a less serious side of engineering, one of his daughter’s toys sparked an idea related to earthquake-resistant buildings that led to Wierschem’s National Science Foundation CAREER Award. The role that a toy played in sparking a key part of his research led him to consider how toys could be explicitly included in education.

In his last year of doctoral research at the University of Illinois, Wierschem heard a lecture about how the dynamic response of a structure could be impacted, and at times reduced, by coupling the rotation of a flywheel to the response of that structure. This got him thinking about rotational devices and structural control and was on his mind when he was playing with his daughter.

“One of her push-down top toys inspired the idea of a type of rotational inertial device where the effect of the flywheel is variable,” said Wierschem. “This concept would become a key part of my CAREER project.”

With this class, Wierschem is trying to use toys as a way to attract the students’ attention and engage them, but also as a door to explore interesting science, engineering, and physics that are related to those toys.

I want students to develop an intellectual curiosity that makes them want to explore how things actually work.”

—Nicholas Wierschem

One of the toys that the class examined that most relates to his CAREER award is a type of toy car that has an inertial drive, where the operator pulls the car backwards on the ground, engaging a spring that, after it’s released, zooms the car forward. Wierschem explains that with inertial drive cars, they can be pushed forward, which causes an internal flywheel to rotate and allows the car to travel much further forward than looks to be possible.

“Looking at toys with this inertial drive mechanism and the pull-back mechanism allowed me to introduce the students to concepts like kinetic energy, potential energy, friction, rotational motion, and gear ratios,” said Wierschem.

In addition to pull-back and inertial drive system in toy cars, the class also looked at LEGOs®, the Easy-Bake Oven, lava lamps, quadcopters, video game controller buttons, fireworks, collisions related to sports and the dynamics of baseball bats, probability in card and board games, water guns, sand castles, guitars, speakers, and electromotors.

“This class was a very fun and laid-back experience and taught me a lot of valuable and interesting information,” said first-year student in biological sciences Carter Manson. “We learned all about the physics and phenomena behind lots of everyday objects and toys, which made for a fun and interesting learning experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.”

This was the first semester the class was offered, but Wierschem plans to offer it every other year for at least the duration of his five-year CAREER project.

Students got to test toy cars with two types of drive systems, build their own electromagnets, and produce their own mini-lecture exploring the science and engineering behind a toy of their choosing. The pandemic limited some hands-on activities this semester, but Wierschem hopes to expand those efforts in the future.