Toy-building event at Mason's MIX marks marvelous start to Innovation Week


In 1951, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) founded Engineers Week—a week-long event held every February that highlights the influence of STEM education and practice. During Engineers Week, NSPE advocates for diversity and inclusion in the engineering workforce by supporting outreach to children and young adults hoping to inspire the next generation of engineers. The College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) at George Mason University joined this event by hosting Innovation Week. This year’s theme, ‘Creating the Future: Innovating in Solidarity,’ aims to match these NSPE goals by presenting activities that show how engineers and computing professionals can improve the world. 

Kicking off the week, the CEC’s Office of Diversity, Outreach, and Inclusive Learning (DOIL) partnered with the Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX) by inviting the community to build toys that will be donated to the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Mercadi Crawford, a diversity associate at DOIL, said her team formed a committee with CEC faculty and staff to create this event. 

“We wanted to make sure that we were helping the community in some way. So, we reached out to the playtime nonprofit organization, which is an organization that provides recess and play spaces for unhoused youth,” Mercadi Crawford, diversity associate, College of Engineering and Computing
A diverse group of students, faculty, and staff at Mason hold up wooden toys they built for a toy drive
CEC Maker Space Day at the MIX - students and faculty design, build, and create custom toys in the MIX for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

This event was free, interactive, and publicly accessible, and offered participants a chance to make a difference in the community. Yuta Sugiyama, a senior computational data science major in the College of Science, works at the MIX and came up with the idea for the toy project. 

“Part of my job at the MIX is to assist or get on board with projects from other departments and students by offering my skills and talents. Knowing that the cause was homeless children, I wanted to assist by designing a toy that would inspire homeless children to become engineers and hopefully get them out of their situation," Sugiyama said. 

Tim Nielsen, the manager for the MIX, said Sugiyama suggested the idea of building interactive toys that the children would play with. He said he wanted to transform the toy into Mr. Potato Head to add an “element of play” to the toy. “We wanted something that was designed from scratch. We wanted it to be something that’s good,” Nielsen said. 

Nielsen explained how the MIX provides a creative outlet for students, organizations, and the public. 

“I want the folks who are here to not just be doing an activity, but doing an activity that is engaging with the space so they kinda see what’s available here,” he said.  

Students built the toys using multiple pre-made laser-cut wood pieces, pipettes, and googly eyes. They bonded the pieces together with glue. This interactive activity resembled building a puzzle, with participants using mathematical perspective and creativity to make art. 

Brittany Johnson-Matthews, assistant professor in the computer science department, served on the event’s organizing committee. “These types of activities I find to be important to kind of bring balance to STEM education and STEM training. As well as to make people realize that it can be fun to do technical and stimulating things," she said. 

To generate interest in the event, flyers, and social media posts were distributed on the CEC digital and print platforms. Perhaps the best way was word of mouth, as Theo Zamani, a junior mechanical engineering major, learned about it. Zamani, the president of the Mason American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) chapter, promoted the event with ASME members. 

“I took this project on and promoted it to help the cause. It was the first time this was done, and this was a great way for people to give back to the community.” 

She said having fellow students participate in activities like this can be beneficial in many ways. “It’s a great way to give back. It’s also nice as a hands-on activity. I hope we have events like this in the future.” 

About the MIX
The MIX which is located on the ground floor of Horizon Hall on the Mason Fairfax Campus. This collaborative space hosts workshops, competitions, and accelerator programs for the public and provides opportunities for them to build creative projects.