Getting kids to brush their teeth can be hard work, but MIT students in a toy design class took on the challenge this semester by creating toys that make dental hygiene fun.
From a "Flosszilla" monster that dispenses floss from its tail to a mini R2D2 that shoots a toothbrush from the top of its head, light-saber-style, the students played to children's love of characters to encourage them to take good care of their teeth.
Students worked with mentors from toy company Hasbro and with dental hygienist Wendy Westford of MIT Medical to develop their toys. They also visited students at the Fletcher Maynard Academy in Cambridge to get feedback on their preliminary designs.
Designs that incorporated popular characters like Harry Potter and Batman were a hit among the second-graders that make up the toys' target audience.
"A lot of the successful toys are extensions of popular properties. Star Wars is big for that age group. Superheroes are huge, and Harry Potter is big for all age groups," said Barry Kudrowitz, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, who teaches Toy Product Design, a Public Service Design Seminar offered at the Edgerton Center each spring.
Students worked on their projects in teams of four to six. One of the teams developed a toy that allows children to mix different flavors of toothpaste into whatever combination they want.
"We all had flavors of toothpaste we didn't like as a child, so we thought it would be more fun if you could mix your own," said freshman Karlen Ruleman, a member of the team that designed "Flava-Rama."
Each toothpaste tube in the prototype is decorated with different themed stickers -- Mickey Mouse, butterflies or trains. But the students envision that children could decorate their own dispensers.
"We left room for the kids to design their own. We thought it would give them a sense of ownership of their toothpaste," Ruleman said.
"Flosszilla" team members molded their toy from silicon rubber, painted with latex. Toothpaste squirts out from the dinosaur's mouth, floss is dispensed from his tail, and he holds a toothbrush in his arms.
Another team designed a magnetic "Bat Cave," where dental tools -- toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and cup -- are magnetized so they can hang from the ceiling of the cave. A Harry Potter-themed toy features a toothbrush that levitates in mid air.
At the beginning of this semester, each team came up with three sketch models, then selected two for mockup designs. Each team then took one of its ideas all the way to completion and presented them to elementary school students and Hasbro engineers and artists on Thursday, May 18, and Friday, May 19.
The toy design class, which is offered as part of the Public Service Design Seminars and is based on mechanical engineering design principles and media studies, draws students from a wide range of majors.
"We want to try to introduce them to some of the fun things you can do with mechanical engineering," said Kudrowitz, who wrote his master's thesis on toy design.
Students in the course learn all the basic skills needed for product design -- CAD, drawing and shop -- but with an emphasis on making things that are fun as well as functional.
"We're trying to teach more than toy design -- we're teaching how to design for entertainment," Kudrowitz said.
To see photos of the toy designs, visit web.mit.edu/sp.778/www.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 24, 2006 (download PDF).