Creating with Compassion

Senior Micki Grover explains that UMD has allowed her to figure out exactly what she wants.

She’s had internships, worked on sustainability projects and conducted research, and it’s all fallen into place. “All I had to do is ask and the project was there for me,” said Micki.

The project she is referring to is part of an independent study Micki pursued this spring, her last semester at UMD, to design toys. Micki is graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and her vision has inspired faculty and fellow engineering students to follow her example.

The Introductory to Solid Modeling class taught by Assistant Professor Abigail Clarke-Sather has incorporated a toy design project to give undergraduates hands-on experience.  “Micki came to me wanting to design toys, and I suggested designing toys for kids whose needs are not being met now,” said Clarke-Sather. So, their focus is to create toys that better meet the needs of kids with developmental challenges.

“I have a couple of loved ones with Asperger’s, and they’re on the autism spectrum so seeing the fidget toys they play with inspired me to create better toys,” explained Micki.

Engineering Process

Micki Grover Design Sketch

“I’m learning so much as an engineer, and you have to constantly learn new things depending on a client’s needs,” said Micki. The process of creating a new product involves market research, developing a design and 3D model, figuring out how best to bring the design to life, and then testing the prototype to gather feedback and create a final product.

Micki and Dr. Clarke-Sather also employed “lead user theory” which is based on the idea that if you create a better product for users with special needs, it can improve product design for all users. “It’s a way to drive innovation,” said Micki. “We can design toys that better meet the needs of everyone.”

Testing How It Plays

Micki describes her design as a fidget toy. It looks like a train made up of wooden and bright red plastic blocks with wheels and interconnected parts that can be easily twisted into shapes. It took hours to construct with the help of 3D printers and a wood shop at her family home near Princeton, Minnesota.

Closeup of Toy

The testing part has been her favorite step. Micki reached out to the Occupational Therapy program at neighboring College of St. Scholastica, where she was put in touch with the family of a young boy seeking therapy services at the Maurices Community Clinic to get help with motor functions.

“His mom is excited to be a part of this,” Micki said. “The family talked about needing a toy that would use both hands.”

Kids at UMD’s daycare center, The Children’s Place, also got the chance to try out the toys designed by Micki and other students at UMD. She said it was awesome to see the kids playing with them. “They came up with ways to use the toys that we hadn’t even thought of and some of the kids did not want to quit,” she said.

Ready for the Next Step

“I want to be the best engineer I can be,” added Micki. “In every class I’ve had here at UMD, there’s a section on how what we do affects the world and our social responsibility, so I’ve incorporated that into this project. It’s at the heart of this project.”

Micki started out as an English major at the University of Minnesota Morris and transferred here after deciding to follow a different educational path. For the 2017-18 academic year, Micki was the recipient of the Mary Ann and Jerry Ostroski Engineering Scholarship. She already has a job lined up at Emerson Automation Solutions, Rosemount Inc. after graduation and is excited to start her career as a manufacturing engineer.

Learn more about the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.