West Lafayette, Indiana - The INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering brings an educational aspect to the holiday season with its third annual Engineering Gift Guide.

The guide from Purdue University is bigger than past years, filled with almost 100 fun toys, games and applications to engage girls and boys ages 3-18 in engineering thinking and design. Thirteen books offering stories and facts about engineering also are in the guide.

Elizabeth Gajdzik, assistant director of INSPIRE, said the guide tries to balance the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning opportunities these toys provide with the enjoyment children want.

"Many parents are looking for toys and games that are educational and really fun," Gajdzik said. "With STEM being such a hot topic, many products in stores and online say they teach STEM or engineering concepts. Our guide helps gift buyers identify which products really engage children in engineering learning and have positive reviews from parents and children."

INSPIRE is a research institute in the College of Engineering's School of Engineering Education established in 2006 to help educators and parents investigate how children learn engineering in formal and informal spaces and how to increase the ability and interest of a diverse group of students to become engineers.

A YouTube video about the guide is available at https://youtu.be/PWn_vzlEkPQ.

Items included in the guide go through an extensive review process. From the engineering aspect, Gajdzik said the toys should promote engineering practices ranging from coding and spatial reasoning to problem solving and critical thinking. Purdue engineers were asked to evaluate the toys, and INSPIRE faculty, staff and students conducted their own evaluations.

And then there are the most important groups of evaluators: parents and children.

"If kids don't think it's fun, why would a parent want to buy it?" Gajdzik said. “And, even though a toy may be fun, if a parent feels like the cost outweighs the value of the toy, that doesn't work either.”

“We aim to only include gifts that are positively reviewed across each of the groups,” she said.

INSPIRE collected feedback from children by visiting a local Girl Scout meeting, the Purdue University and Patty Jischke Early Care and Education centers and Sunnyside Intermediate School.

Also, students from Lafayette Christian School provided feedback at an event in the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering Atrium during a field trip. Children of engineering faculty, staff and graduate students were permitted to take home the gifts and provide more in-depth reviews.

Finally, feedback was collected from parents and engineers who interacted with the toys while attending a three-day event at Armstrong Atrium and in the INSPIRE lab, as well as with their children at home.

"We want people to know that it's not just Elizabeth and my ideas of what should be included in the guide," said Monica Cardella, director of INSPIRE. "Everything has gone through an extensive testing process."

The variety of toys has changed since last year, with fewer robotic toys and more toys that focus around the idea of coding, which has become more popular. Logic puzzles and hands-on toys are more prevalent as well this year.

"Children are really into coding these days," Gajdzik said. "This year our guide includes a variety of coding items, from an app that is controlled by hands-on physical blocks to a robot mouse you program to help it find its cheese, to a board game where children use coding and logical thinking to solve puzzles."

Cardella said that another benefit to the guide is that it provides short articles based on findings from INSPIRE's research. The articles contain information that can be easily applied at home, even if the family doesn't purchase any of the items in the guide.

In addition, a seal was issued by Purdue and INSPIRE to toys, games, books and apps for the second straight year to let consumers know that a gift promotes engineering thinking and design and was selected to be in the guide. Companies can include it on the gift itself or on their website.

third annual Engineering Gift Guide