AnnMarie Thomas, founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab and professor in the School of Engineering and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, was awarded the 2020 LEGO Prize Monday. Thomas is being recognized for collaboration with educators and her advocacy for playful learning.

The LEGO Foundation, which makes the annual prize possible, is an organization dedicated to building a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged lifelong learners. Since 1985, the prize has been awarded to individuals or organizations that have made an outstanding contribution to the lives of children and are champions of learning through play. The prize is accompanied by a cash award of $100,000 to support the further development of their work.

“It is an incredible honor to have the Playful Learning Lab’s work recognized this way,” Thomas said. “The LEGO Foundation is an organization whose work I have long admired and whose resources and reports have been fantastic sources of information to me and the other Lab members. This prize will allow us to expand our work with the Metro Deaf School and the Minnesota Children’s Museum in exciting new ways!”

Thomas is an author, professor of education and engineering, and leader of the Playful Learning Lab, a research lab of undergraduate students at the University of St. Thomas that focuses on integrated play and learning. The Playful Learning Lab’s rules are 1) be kind, 2) clean up your messes and 3) play well with others. These rules are lived out through collaborations with organizations such as Grammy-winning rock band OK Go, the Twin Cities Trapeze Center, PBS, the Minnesota Children’s Museum, Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and Metro Deaf School, among others. Through these partnerships, the Playful Learning Lab works to create engaging, hands-on experiences for students and educators, with a focus on fun. The Lab researches approaches to fusing learning with play and regularly publishes and presents this research. The monetary award accompanying the LEGO Prize will be used to develop and continue the Lab’s playful STEAM projects.

Thomas earned her Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology, and an S.B. in ocean engineering (with a minor in music) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To add to that, she completed a professional certificate in sustainable design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Thomas also co-founded and co-directs the University of St. Thomas’s Center for Engineering Education (CEE), which offers engineering courses for PK-12 educators and conducts research on engineering at the pre-collegiate level. In addition, she served as the founding executive director of the Maker Education Initiative, where her team established the national Maker Corps program and laid the groundwork for the nonprofit. Her wide array of educational experiences and interests play into the interdisciplinary aspects of her work and help her to emphasize the playful possibilities in STEAM.

“AnnMarie’s work may be difficult to put in a box,” said Rachel Gehlhar, Playful Learning Lab alumna, “but that is because she thinks outside the box. I admire AnnMarie’s creative, integrative work to connect engineering and people. She [does this] through the collaborations she initiates, bringing diverse individuals together who can accomplish a multidisciplinary engineering project none could conquer on their own.”

At the virtual LEGO Idea Conference, Thomas is presenting with OK Go’s Damian Kulash on OK Go Sandbox, where the pair will be discussing creativity and problem solving. Their talk is joined by other speakers, including Andreas Schleicher, statistician and education researcher at OECD in Paris; Andria Zafirakou, London-based arts and textiles teacher and 2018 Global Teacher Prize winner; and Ronald Beghetto, professor at Arizona State University and expert on creative thought and action in educational settings.

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