School of Engineering professor AnnMarie Thomas poses for a studio portrait with light-painted tracks made by LEDs March 3, 2015. Taken for the School of Engineering newsletter. Thomas often explores play concepts as a way of teaching engineering.

Bridging Engineering and Entrepreneurship at UST

Play. Make. Design. Collaborate.
AnnMarie Thomas Accepts Dual Appointment in Engineering and Entrepreneurship

From presenting at the White House to speaking at Google and Disney, AnnMarie Thomas, Ph.D., is in high demand across the country. The demand is in her own back yard as well. After nine years of teaching and leadership in the University of St. Thomas’s School of Engineering, the university’s Schulze School of Entrepreneurship has asked Thomas to join its team as well. Thomas is now an associate professor in both the School of Engineering and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.

“Math, science and technology are the tools we use as engineers to bring ideas to life,” said Thomas. “But to make any project succeed, there has to be the business side to it. Having this structure where we can bring the business and engineering together is a rather unique opportunity to pull students from both pools, but also faculty and resources.”

Thomas’s educational background is in engineering, specifically underwater robotics, from MIT and Caltech. In 2012 she earned a certificate in Sustainable Design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Thomas is the founder and director of UST’s Playful Learning Lab, through which she leads a team of students looking at the playful side of engineering. Alongside colleagues, she founded and directs the University of St. Thomas Center for Engineering Education, developing and teaching engineering courses for PK-12 educators.

“Dr. Thomas’s work has always lived at the edges of the engineering domain," said Don Weinkauf, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Engineering. “She clearly thrives in that cross-over space, whether it is between engineering and art, engineering and education, and now engineering and entrepreneurship. In each case, something remarkable emerges, and I am looking forward to seeing what will manifest from this new collaboration.”

Thomas’s research centers on identifying and showcasing the ways creativity and play can enhance learning environments. Working with undergraduate students in the Playful Learning Lab, Thomas founded Squishy Circuits, a product that uses homemade play dough to show electrical properties and turns kids into circuit designers. The success of Squishy Circuits brought Thomas and her daughter to the White House’s first Maker Faire, earned St. Thomas a Eureka! Award from the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal, led to a TED talk with more than 700,000 online views, and spun out a company to sell the product.

Joining the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, Thomas will develop a new entrepreneurship course. She’s also leading the creation of two “maker space,” or prototyping labs, one each on the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses. These will allow students from all disciplines to build out physical ideas in a hands-on learning environment.

“The maker spaces will bring out creativity and innovative ideas from students who may be hesitant to throw some of their thoughts out there,” said Thomas. “By creating physical spaces like this, we allow budding entrepreneurs, and those who don’t self-identify as entrepreneurs, to explore innovative ideas and try to make them a reality.”

“Entrepreneurship is a cross-disciplinary field of study and practice that we continue to ingrain across campus,” said Associate Dean of Entrepreneurship Brian Abraham. “AnnMarie, with her cross-disciplinary background, will serve as a great ambassador for our programming as she leads our innovation centers, design thinking approaches and co-curricular activities like hackathons and bootcamps.”

Thomas has written two books, including “Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation.” She served as the Founding Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative, where she established the national Maker Corps program and worked closey with Pixar, Intel, Cognizant and Maker Media. Her collaborative endeavors include work with Alinea restaurant, Circus Juventas, Diavolo dance troupe, Magic Arms nonprofit, American Museum of Asmat Art, and the Works museum. She sits on the advisory panel for Disney Imagicademy and has won numerous awards, including the ASEE North Midwest Section Outstanding Educator of the Year in 2010. Thomas lives in St. Paul with her husband and two daughters.