By Sherry DiBari

The elves at Santa's toy shop at Old Dominion University had a few challenges to overcome this year. The COVID-19 pandemic left student toymakers without access to ODU's labs, machinery and tools - essential resources in toymaking.

With a little creativity, however, they worked together, though in different locations, to fabricate 50 STEM toys.

Sixty industrial technology students from ODU's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies spent fall semester designing and building moon catchers and magic ladders. During the first week of December, the completed toys, wrapped in special MerMADE STEM Toys4Kids boxes constructed by Slover Library, were delivered to the Children's Hospital of The Kings Daughters (CHKD) Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Basim Matrood, a lecturer in ODU's STEM education and professional studies (STEMPS) program, coordinated the semester-long project among three classes. Matrood has been involved in the project since 2016.

Petros Katsioloudis, professor and chair of STEMPS, founded the project in 2015. He continues to serve as project reviewer and logistics coordinator with CHKD.

To date, the project has delivered more than 300 toys to children in local hospitals.

This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, students didn't have access to traditional workshop tools and labs. As a workaround, they built the toys from home in separate pieces.

Student teams were responsible for different tasks.

"Students who had access to tools and machinery at their home garage were able to build pieces and pass those to others for a different task," Katsioloudis explained.

Some students were responsible for building parts, others for finishing and others for assembly and packaging.

"The biggest challenge was completing a group project where we are required to build a project with so many components virtually," said Tiara Johnson, a senior in the industrial and occupational technical studies program. "Communication was definitely very important during this process."

"Even though the ODU students did not have the luxury of being in the lab and using the tools, it was important that they stay involved and continue caring for others," Katsioloudis said.

The moon catchers and magic ladders, age appropriate for children 3-8 and 9-18, were painted neutral colors.

"The toys were designed from an educational point of view and constructed in a way to increase the spatial visualization ability of the user," Katsioloudis said.

During the semester, Matrood utilized the engineering design process with students. This allowed them to identify problems, present three solutions and choose the best one based on the manufacturing process and appropriateness for the CHKD patients.

"This year is a special year," Katsioloudis said. "We wanted to make sure that the individuals that are already faced with the health challenges and are now faced with additional challenges (COVID-19) know that others care for them and are willing to try to make their life a little better."

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