The Magic Behind the Playful Learning Lab

On a recent Tuesday, about a dozen members of the Playful Learning Lab (PLL) gathered at O’Shaughnessy Science Hall to tackle numerous tasks during what turned out to be a whirlwind hour of productivity.

The pace is fast, the energy palpable and the excitement contagious. There is talk of working with Google, PBS, OK Go Sandbox, and a school for the deaf. A few high profile, yet-to-be-announced partnerships have some members of the interdisciplinary crew a bit giddy.

The group’s founder and director AnnMarie Thomas, PhD, a professor in the School of Engineering and Opus College of Business Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, relies on students to take the lead.

“It's fantastic working with such a creative and energetic team of students,” Thomas said. “I am constantly learning new things from them, especially the students who come from majors other than engineering. Also, by having such a large team, we can do so many more projects and collaborations.”

At its heart, the Playful Learning Lab is a research group focused on creating fun, unique and engaging hands-on experiences for PK-12 students and educators. Funding for the paid student positions comes from individual project grants, fees from Thomas’ side projects including speaking engagements, the School of Engineering and lab alumni donations.

Students discuss plans and ideas for the Playful Learning Lab during a lunch meeting in O'Shaughnessy Science Hall on February 5, 2019 in St. Paul.

The students come from a cross section of majors – engineering, communication and journalism, entrepreneurship, economics, computer science, education – and work on an eclectic array of projects, many of which force them outside comfort zones while still allowing them to embrace their strengths. They are in charge of getting things done with the caveat that Thomas is always there to answer questions, provide support and jump in if necessary.

Garrison Hoffbeck, a senior entrepreneurship major, focuses on marketing and strategy for the Playful Learning Lab. He said his experience with the group is rewarding, with the proudest moments happening when they take an idea and see it through to fruition.

“It feels like we’re all running a start-up with each new project we take on,” Hoffbeck said. “Our roles get defined but we still have the fluidity and freedom to move around and solve problems within the team. It is real, active learning. This lab provides me with an opportunity to build on my skills and talents, while also offering the chance to try other fields. For me, the PLL provides a solid team, creativity, challenge and innovation. To know that we are all driven in that is why I get so much out of it.”

Junior Hannah French is project manager of OK Go Sandbox, a Playful Learning Lab collaboration with the rock band OK Go that includes an education display/activity setup outside select OK Go concerts. Up to three Playful Learning Lab members go to the shows, which have taken them to Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with a trip to Alaska planned for spring break. As project lead, French, a mechanical engineering major, is in charge of all the logistics, including travel arrangements.

“I am doing project management, working on my people skills, and I am talking to people from all types of backgrounds,” French said. “They are professionals who would not necessarily assume they are talking to a 20-year-old undergraduate student. Maybe it’s not directly correlated to what I’m going to do as a mechanical engineer, but these are skills people should have and I am getting them through these crazy experiences.”

A junior K-12 vocal music education major, Alyssa Eggersgluss is the Playful Learning Lab’s education lead. She said the group gives her a sense of pride and is a place where you are treated as an intellectual, collaborator and friend.

“Not only am I doing innovative, intellectual work with Lab collaborators that I never imagined I’d get to meet, much less work with, but I am doing so in a community that emphasizes play, gratitude and teamwork,” Eggersgluss said. “It provides me with a place to be silly and explorative with my coworkers in a way that leads to large-scale academic projects. Additionally, it has taught me so much about learning. The Playful Learning Lab really does emphasize play, and all of our projects provide fun ways for students to explore academic content. It also puts a massive focus on cross-curricular learning by emphasizing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) projects. I now not only have a mindset of exploration and cross-curricular learning, but I have actual tools and methods of implementation to use as an educator.”

Sophomore Grace Kubista is Playful Learning Lab project manager for Code and Chords, which teamed up with PBS’ “SciGirls” TV series over the summer. A civil engineering major, Kubista remembers watching “SciGirls” while growing up in Jordan, Minnesota.

“My summer was spent organizing and helping create a television show,” Kubista said. “I know I would not have done this at another school – only at St. Thomas. I am happy I might be inspiring future Graces.”

On another project Kubista helped organize an event at California Institute of Technology for more than 1,000 kids.

“When I put this on my resume, because I’m a civil engineer people want to know how this applies,” she said. “I tell them I have project management experience, I can work with people and I know how to effectively communicate. It’s hard to find an experience like this where you can say, 'I’ve organized an event for 1,100 kids.'”

Engineering Professor AnnMarie Thomas talks with students about plans and ideas for the Playful Learning Lab during a lunch meeting in O'Shaughnessy Science Hall on February 5, 2019 in St. Paul.

The Playful Learning Lab also encourages students to celebrate their eccentricities. Thomas recently created a spreadsheet to highlight everyone’s quirky hobbies.

“There’s an academic side to the Playful Learning Lab and then there’s the side where we are encouraged to embrace our weird personality traits,” said sophomore Mikyla Harjamaki, a mechanical engineering major. “You do this [Playful Learning Lab] because it makes you happy.”

Eggersgluss, along with all the Playful Learning Lab members interviewed for this story, praised Thomas’ energy, commitment and unwavering support she commits to the group and its individual members.

“AnnMarie inspires a mindset and methodology of collaboration, exploration, play, determination and innovation that makes the Lab as successful and impactful as it is today,” said Eggersgluss. “We are so, so lucky to work for such an amazing role model.”