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Playful Learning, Engineering and Physics Professor Discusses her Unorthodox Methods

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas was never a straight-A student, but her ability to see the creative and playful side of engineering earned her degrees from MIT and CalTech and a job as an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas.
“I was never an A+ student, ever. I’m terrified of tests,” Dr. Thomas told Hun students at a talk on February 16 about how creativity and playfulness can lead to innovation in engineering. “If the class involved a hands-on project, I got an A. If it was test-based, I didn’t get an A.”

Dr. Thomas is now a fulltime advocate for the concept as director of both the Playful Learning Lab and the Center for Engineering Education at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She told Hun students that her lab started with a winter term course a decade ago in which she decided to teach her students the physics of motion -- at a circus school.

An amateur aerialist, Dr. Thomas decided the optional course would be more appealing if it could be fun. Her students learned about the principals of motion, such as centrifugal force, and how a pendulum swings, by hanging from trapezes, the ends of ropes, and other fun places.

“I became known as the crazy professor with that class,” she noted. The concept of a lab as a place to explore playfulness as a learning tool to spark innovation grew from there, and Dr. Thomas now has more than twenty students working with her.

A recent creation of the lab is Squishy Circuits, a toy in which children can use homemade play-dough to build a circuit that lights a light, runs a motor, or rings a buzzer. 

“When I talk to companies, I say you need to find four things for creativity: you need to find joy, whimsy, surprise, and good people,” she said. “Play is about the process, not the results. It needs to be open-ended. Engineering is like writing a novel; you don’t know where it will end up.”
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The Hun School of Princeton is an independent, coeducational, private day and boarding college preparatory school.  Student-centered, hands-on learning prepares students for the global community in which they will live and work.

176 Edgerstoune Road, Princeton, NJ 08540  |  Phone: (609) 921-7600 | Email: admiss@hunschool.org