The Playful Engineering Professor

With AnnMarie Thomas

Today let’s meet AnnMarie Thomas, who I’ve called The Playful Engineering Professor!

AnnMarie has been doing some brilliant work with The Playful Learning Lab at The University of St. Thomas Minnesota, USA.

The Quest: How to make Learning more Engaging?

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas is the director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, where she is a professor of Engineering and Business. She is passionate about bringing the worlds of art and education together to create engaging education experiences.

Even though AnnMarie has a PhD in Robots she was never a classically good student. She had to work twice as hard. As a Professor she realised that the way they teach at University wasn’t really the best way for many of the students. How to get them to find the Joy of Learning was the driving force.

AnnMarie was also a circus student and ended up combining this with her engineering classes! It worked! Harmonic Oscillators, Pendulums… all with circus equipment!
Together with elements of the unexpected and laughter the experiment worked and the students could remember the principles much better. They had literally embodied them. How can we laugh and become a little more whimsical about our learning? We have to find the elements of FUN.

AnnMarie went on to discover how to play with circuitry with special playdough for small kids!

She is big on collaboration. The difference though is she looks to create PLAYFUL collaboration. This meant even bringing 4 years together with her engineering design students to work on design projects in a park. The little ones are awesome creative collaborators.

Art students are incredible divergent thinkers and there is such a different approach to learning then there is for engineering students.
“It we only stick with SAFE ideas we don’t really come up with anything interesting. We need to be playful, inspired from the life around us.
How to teach a more open-ended methodology?
How to get students to enjoy the process, which in the end is more important than the result?
Can a student build a project that doesn’t work and STILL GET A TOP MARKS?
Could the students build a bridge that doesn’t work and still get top marks?
Or a rocket that doesn’t take off?Google, for example, have lots of projects that get scraped but they encourage their employees to come up with lots of new things and try then to see where they take them for a couple of years.

Kids. If we teach them that everything they do has to work, then it means that they will only build the “safe” things. If we want the truly spectacular and creative things we need a place where things might not work.

So, how to build a net to create a space for them to bounce back?
In her lab, AnnMarie in defining play looks for four things:

  • How do you bring joy.
  • How do you bring whimsy.
  • How do you bring surprise.
  • How do you involve new people
.Start with getting your students to smile!
As a teacher bring passion to your class. Find the thing that gives you joy and bring it to the classroom as soon as possible.
Start with getting your students to SMILE.
Create ART together.

3 rules in the Playful Learning Lab:

  • Be kind.
  • Play well with others.
  • Clean up your mess.


We need Artistic Engineers, Scientific Politians… mixed ability people!

Importance of divergent thinking in design.
AnnMarie gives some conditions, for example: they must be MAGIC, make you LAUGH, cost $1,000,000!


In the first Lockdown AnnMarie started up a PLAYfest and it’s back really soon!!! You are invited to PLAYfest2021 on January 29-30, 2021! This 2 day free​ event will be held online and includes 25+ speakers and 40+ interactive workshops.
It’s about what people are passionate about.
You have to be there in the moment. No recordings. Free.

AnnMarie on TedX
“Creativity can be a catch all phrase to speak to the need to see the solutions and possibilities right in front of us, but often invisible to the mind, or, like playing a tough chess game, a few moves out before hinting at its presence. How do you draw it out, and what does it mean to embrace the power of creativity in your daily life?

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas is the director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, where she is a professor in the School of Engineering and the Opus College of Business. She is the creator of Squishy Circuits, and the author of “Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation.” AnnMarie and her research students explore the intersection of the arts, technology and education and are always in search of their next unusual collaboration. Dr. Thomas has an undergraduate degree in Ocean Engineering (with a minor in Music) from MIT, MS and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Caltech, and a professional certificate in Sustainable Design from MCAD. Prior to joining the University of St. Thomas she was a faculty member at Art Center College of Design. When she’s not working with dancers, singers, schools, chefs or preschoolers, AnnMarie and her daughters can be found performing and studying flying trapeze and other aerial arts”.

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