Cohen Challenges Students to Create, Pitch, Repeat..For Mattel!

By: Ashley Duvelius

In a two-part interactive classroom exercise, Professor Kelly Cohen, challenged his students to create an original flying children’s toy. Little did they know, their concept might be the next Mattel offering.

Aero engineering students reveal their toy idea to the class after Nancy Turner has sketched it.

Aero engineering students reveal their toy drawing to the class after Nancy Turner has sketched it.

“I envision a future in which creativity is seamlessly infused into the engineering pedagogy at UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) and as a direct result, our students will trump their competition upon entering the workforce,” says Kelly Cohen, PhD and Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

This semester, Cohen had the chance to do just that. The leading American toy manufacturing company, Mattel Inc., recently approached NineSigma Inc. in search of novel ideas for a new flying children’s toy. NineSigma is a Cleveland-based organization which specializes in connecting innovation-seeking companies to the best solutions, capabilities and partners around the world. Their answer for Mattel was simple and on point: talk to the engineers at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Cohen graciously accepted Mattel’s challenge and turned their request into a fun, interactive classroom project for his unsuspecting Intro to Systems Engineering sophomore students. In what became a two-part classroom session, Cohen first introduced his class to Nancy Turner, who is a graphic facilitator and the wife of Mark G. Turner, ScD and Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics associate professor.

During the first class session, without revealing Mattel’s mission, Nancy asked the students three questions: 1) Name engaging toys that they played with as a kid, ages 8-16; 2) Name things that fly; 3) How do these things fly/what enables them to propel through the air.

She then asked them to create a toy while incorporating a feature from each of the above questions. After ten minutes of brainstorming and sketching, Nancy had the students pass their creation on to the person sitting next to them. This individual was then instructed to build upon that idea or scrap it and form an original concept of their own.

 After this brainstorming period concluded, the class was divided into 13 teams of two students. Each pair was allowed to combine their creations, move forward with one of them, or cultivate a wholly new idea together.

In the second class session, each team presented their dream toy in a brief pitch explaining: 1) What it is and why/how it would be engaging for kids; 2) What makes it a flying toy; 3) How it moves through the air.

Nancy doodles a toy based on the verbal description given by a student.

Nancy doodles a toy based on the verbal description given by a student.

The kicker: Nancy was at-the-ready to draw the students’ ideas but the teams weren’t allowed to show a picture of their toy until she had already drawn their concept—her depiction was based solely on the details communicated in their pitch!

Nancy went to town sketching all types of concepts from a “Barbie Dreamhouse ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile)” to a “HydroCopter,” which was a mix between a helicopter and a Mach 5 speedboat.

At the conclusion of the presentations, Mark Turner announced that the students had just designed new toys for Mattel. Excited whispers erupted across the room.

Mark went on to explain, “With the help of NineSigma, we have been given the unique opportunity to work with Mattel. I’d like to you refine your ideas and submit them. Who knows—your toy concept may be just the one they’ve been looking for and you might have the chance to assist a renowned company in their toy development.”

Cohen couldn’t be more proud of his students’ openness to this project. He says, “This is what the real world is all about: having an edge up on competition and the key to that is embracing creativity. I look forward to seeing what bold creations spawn from this exercise.”

Also impressed by the students was the artist herself. Nancy explains, “We are simply injecting creativity into the cracks of the structured, rigorous engineering curricula. These students have shown an unparalleled eagerness to think outside of the box and rise to the challenge. I have no doubt that they’ll be graduating UC as well-rounded, attractive job candidates.”

Cohen’s creativity classroom exercise is just one example of how we’re molding young minds into highly sought-after engineers of the future as WE ENGINEER BETTER™.