In a new class at the University of Minnesota, students create toys they think will be winners with their toughest critics: kids.
Most college students focus on papers, midterms and finals. Group work, if assigned, is a dreaded mix of lazy teammates, rapidly approaching deadlines and late-night coffeeshop sessions.
But for students in one class at the University of Minnesota, group work has become a chance for collaboration, creativity and -- who'd have thought it --fun.
They're in a class simply called "Toy Product Design," offered for the first time this semester in the University's College of Design. It's open to students from a wide array of majors and disciplines: mechanical engineering, fashion, design, computer science and many others.
Their toys were not created in a vacuum, however. A major component of the class is a series of pitches and focus groups with industry professionals at Creative Kidstuff of Minneapolis and with kids at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul. The focus groups, students said, gave them practical guidance they could have gotten nowhere else.
"We're not kids, and we think we know what they want," said Colin Nelson, an engineering major who took the course. "But you never know until they try it."
The result was a wide-ranging array of actual toys, including "Crush-A-Town," a street-covered mat that makes destructive noises when the kids stomp on the buildings. That one was popular with parents, who liked that it allows kids to be "destructive in a creative way," said Taylor Hill, a graphic design major who helped design the town.
Another creation: A fuzzy orange cyclops called Seymour plays a game called "Eye See You" in which it sits on the floor and spins around. If it catches a child moving, it tells him or her to stop, take a step back, spin around or dance.
The focus of the class was on collective problem-solving and innovation, said the students.
"With the majority of mechanical engineering classes, it's all book work," said Nelson, who was in Hill's group. "Everybody comes to the same answer."
Nelson said the toy course's open-ended approach was a wellspring for new ideas and learning.
Hill agreed, saying it was the only class she's taken that truly addresses cross-disciplinary design, which in this case meant that each group's members majored in different subjects. That, the students said, broadened the creative process.
"We all had an interest in the course," Hill said. "People are here because they want to be."
The semester culminated in a big, theatrical night where the groups presented final prototypes of their projects to a packed campus auditorium. Their instructor, Barry Kudrowitz, cheekily calls them "PLAYsentations."
The evening was a mix of theater, science and marketing. Some students acted as children playing with the toys while others explained the mechanical components that went into the them.
Some toys had practical applications in addition to the fun factor. Critter Chorus, for instance, is a wooden ring with a circle of sensors connected to a musical circuit board. When children put in different wooden pucks, different notes are played as a light travels around the ring. The group said it would help develop children's sense of music and melody.
One important aspect of the presentation was the ability to answer the occasional tough question. The first group made a furry toy chest -- Chomper -- that makes eating noises and spouts sassy catchphrases when someone drops toys onto pressure sensors in his bottom panel.
One audience member noticed that the adult students were opening it easily from the side and wondered if children could get their fingers under the lid easily.
Group members looked nervously at each other for a moment before Andrew Maxwell-Parish piped up: "It's got a little bit of an overbite," he said. Big laugh, and crisis averted.
Because the groups have spent an entire semester working on one project, they said they feel a greater sense of ownership of their final product. "We're more invested in the outcome," Nelson said.
Of course, spending half a school year on one toy can be consuming, but that hasn't been a deterrent for Nelson: "If you disregard the constant worry about getting stuff done, this is my favorite class."
Kudrowitz said the course will return in spring 2012. But if the successes of the students in this pilot course are any indication, this may be a new start for the design program.
Justin Kindelspire, one of the shop instructors in the design program, noticed that excitement about the new course has already spread to other students.
"Other architecture students come into the shop and see them working on toys, and I think they're jealous."
Alex Gaterud is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.