Ryan Elementary, CU Boulder partner to build toy for Children’s Hospital Colorado

Students at Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary School helped University of Colorado engineering students design a toy for children that are in a hospital.

The toy needed to meet safety standards, be easy to clean, stand up to strong disinfectants, be transportable and — most importantly — be fun and engaging.

About 200 Ryan students gave feedback on various prototypes developed by seven CU mechanical engineering seniors, who were led by with CU Science Discovery Summer STEM Programs Director Brian Jernigan.

Along with Ryan students, preschool students at Broomfield’s Bal Swan Children’s Center also offered their ideas.

Jernigan approached Children’s Hospital Colorado with the idea of designing toys to help relieve the boredom of hospital stays. The goal, he said, is to tap into children’s natural empathy and interest in helping other children.

“The kids give you ideas you never would have thought of,” he said. “Engineering is about wild ideas and solving problems.”

The toy is a ball maze that mimics the water cycle, with a diagram of the water cycle printed on the back in English and Spanish. Six carved knobs allow students to move water molecule balls from the sky to the ground.

Because the toys must be built by an industry partner — Kodo Kids, of Broomfield — to meet safety standards, Jernigan said, three have been made so far for the hospital.


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The toy project fits with Ryan’s science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, focus. This was the second year that CU engineering scholars have worked with Ryan students.

At Ryan, students spend 40 minutes a week in an engineering lab, while teachers also can bring in classes to work on bigger projects.

Second-graders studying force and motion, for example, designed a miniature golf course, while third-graders made battle robots and fourth-graders built rockets.

Third-grader Jaejune Lee plays with the "rain game" Thursday morning at Ryan Elementary.

Third-grader Jaejune Lee plays with the “rain game” Thursday morning at Ryan Elementary. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)

Ryan teacher Mark Appling, who runs the lab, said the Children’s Hospital project gave students a view of more sophisticated prototypes, a connection to college students and an audience to listen to their ideas.

“We believe that every kid has a valuable contribution,” Appling said. “The kids respond to having a genuine audience. It’s validating.”

Ryan fourth-grader Ari Parrish was one of the students who took a trip to CU’s engineering lab as part of the project.

After testing an early prototype of the toy, she suggested more color and more little molecule balls.

“The kids in the hospital can’t go home, but they can play with toys,” she said. “It’s fun to learn new things.”

Classmate Ryan Griffith said he approached the problem of hospital boredom based on his own experience spending a few days in a hospital when he was younger because of a breathing issue.

Plus, he said, kids know better about what’s fun for other kids than adults do.

“It’s your target audience,” he said.

Griffith’s suggestions included making the knobs smoother and providing multiple paths to move the water molecules. The toy itself also needed to be lighter.

“You don’t want it to be too hard to use,” he said. “You don’t want kids to get frustrated.”

Griffith added that he likes that the toy included a learning component.

“It’s a good idea to have kids learn while they play,” he said.

Amy Bounds: 303-473-1341, [email protected] or twitter.com/boundsa

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