AnnMarie Thomas has electrified homemade play dough, engineered musical cupcakes and sent college students flying on a trapeze.
Not exactly your typical engineering professor.
One of her titles at the University of St. Thomas gives you a clue to her worldview: founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab.
“So much of the work I do is about play,” said Thomas, who spends her free time rolling around her backyard in a giant metal hoop, a piece of circus equipment called a Cyr ring.
“Play is about the process,” she said. “Play is in the moment.”
And, according to Thomas, play is also a great way to foster learning and innovation.
The 38-year-old associate professor, who has been on the engineering faculty at St. Thomas since 2006, has studied everything from toy design to e-textiles to underwater robots. Her projects have to led to collaborations with everyone from Disney to rock bands to pastry chefs.
But so far, she’s most famous for something called Squishy Circuits.
Out of a desire to teach basic electronics to kids too young to handle a soldering iron, Thomas and student Samuel Johnson developed a homemade play dough made with inexpensive ingredients such as flour and vegetable oil. If you use salt as one of the ingredients, the dough will conduct electricity. If you use sugar, the dough will resist electrical current.
Even the littlest hands can mold the dough into shapes, with the conductive dough acting like a wire and the nonconductive dough acting as an insulator. Add a battery and an LED light and you’ve turned a preschooler into a circuit designer.
“A lot of people thought it was an odd idea,” Thomas said, but the idea took off after she gave a TED Talk in 2011. The online video of it has been viewed more than 850,000 times. Tens of thousands of parents and teachers from Iran to Australia soon began using Squishy Circuits (squishycircuits.com) to teach their kids.
Squishy Circuits even made an appearance at the White House, when Thomas and her 9-year-old daughter, Sage, were invited to represent Minnesota at a Maker Faire in 2014. Sage demonstrated the circuits wearing a dress she had made.
“We’re inherently makers,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important for kids to know they can create something.”
She wrote a book in 2014 on how to foster that sort of creativity in kids, called “Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation.”
Because of her leadership in early engineering education, a new creativity center at Mounds Park Academy was recently named the AnnMarie Thomas Makerspace.
The real Ms. Frizzle
Thomas’ path to being an unconventional engineering professor started with being an unconventional student.
She grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, went to a small Quaker school and was planning to be “a musician, actor, artist, something creative.”
“I was quirky,” she said. “I can outwork anybody, but I was not going to be a straight-A kid.”
Still, she took every math and science class she could and ended up at MIT, where she minored in music but got a degree in ocean engineering. She followed that with a mechanical engineering doctorate at Caltech, where she studied how the pulsating motion of jellyfish and squid could be adapted to propel underwater robots, study she now calls “the least interesting thing I’ve ever done.”
In college she met a fellow student from Minnesota who would become her husband, Chris Thomas, who’s now a research chemist at 3M. The couple have two young daughters and live in St. Paul.
Thomas was hired at St. Thomas to teach classes in engineering and machine design, but she also taught a physics of motion class with a lab that included sending students swinging on a circus trapeze at Circus Juventas.
“I really believe in spectacle and engagement with students,” said Thomas, an amateur aerialist who describes the circus as “a giant physics lab.” Students nicknamed her Ms. Frizzle, after the fictional teacher who took her classes on learning adventures in “The Magic School Bus” book and TV series.
“She was always surprising us in good ways,” said Alison Haugh, a fourth-grade teacher who was a student of Thomas. “She helps me remember why I wanted to be a teacher.”
Thomas has involved herself in a dizzying array of new projects and collaborations, including co-founding and codirecting the University of St. Thomas Center for Engineering Education, which teaches elementary and secondary school teachers about the joys of engineering.
She was the founding executive director of the Maker Education Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes maker-centered education.
Beyond the classroom
Thomas, who once taught at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., frequently collaborates with people in non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, from dance to food.
She once worked with artist Steve Roden to create a “musical earthquake-playing robot” art installation.
Code+Chords is a project blending computer science and music that she and her students did in collaboration with the Twin Cities-based Cantus vocal ensemble. The students created a computer program that translated the sound of the singers’ voices into a large visual display.
Thomas also worked on a project with the Michelin-starred Alinea Restaurant Group in Chicago to measure the potency of truffle aromas.
Another collaboration with Seattle pastry chef Kate Sigel led to cupcakes with conductive icing that played music and a cake that exploded edible confetti.
Thoughts often pour out of Thomas so quickly that everyone from her parents to her students have had to tell her to slow down.
“She’s full of energy and innovation and creative beyond creative,” said Cindy Nordstrom, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodland Elementary School in Eagan and a member of the Playful Learning Lab.
It turns out many K-12 teachers use the videos to inspire students and teach engineering or science concepts. So the band is working with the Playful Learning Lab in a project called OK Go Sandbox to create videos specifically geared for educators.
In September, after giving a concert in Red Wing, the band made a video on the St. Thomas campus. The video shoot involved long hours for Thomas, who helped build a chain-reaction device for a scene featuring falling dominoes, a butterfly net and a racquetball racquet.
“The downside of running a play lab is you always have to look like you’re having fun,” Thomas said during the video shoot. “It’s a lot of hard work, but yes, there is also a lot of fun.”