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Engineering Joy With Toy Hack Remix: Process-Oriented Outcomes in STEM Learning

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Dr. Sean Justice  

Learn about toy hack remix, a hybrid engineering and art learning activity. The activity involves deconstructing and then reconstructing an animatronic toy. The objective is for students to identify and analyze their learning process, and to share the story of their learning while presenting their rebuilt toy.

Audience: Library media specialists, Principals/head teachers, Teachers
Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Participant accounts, software and other materials: none
Topic: Teacher education
Grade level: PK-12
Subject area: STEM/STEAM, Language arts
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Pursue professional interests by creating and actively participating in local and global learning networks.
  • Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.

Proposal summary

Purpose & objective

This presentation explores Toy Hack Remix, a hybrid engineering and art activity that has emerged from my teaching and research. The activity involves deconstructing and then reconstructing an animatronic toy. The learning objective for students is to identify and analyze their learning process, and to share the story of their learning journey with their community. Activity outcomes include student reflections on curiosity, community, and joy, and some crazy toys. Participant outcomes from this presentation will be the introduction to toy remixing as an accessible making activity that can spur learning across multiple domains. Another participant take away will be resource examples and tool/material lists to help seed their own toy remixing explorations.

I am concerned about unrealized hopes for a pedagogical revolution. The jargon attached to those hopes feels increasingly anachronistic to me: learner-centeredness; interest-driven; 21st century project-based; shared-expertise; problem-finding; growth mindsets. I fear that exaggerated hopes for a magic fix to what we didn't like about schooling is fueling a resurgence of precisely what we wanted to remove from schools.

The case study at the center of this presentation is from the Toy Hack Remix project. This project pushes against normative expectations about technology. That is, since contemporary tools change faster than any of us can keep up with, my actual objectives don’t dwell on the tools themselves. Rather, the intervention is designed to address the concept and purpose of engineering for equitable community engagement by inviting learners (whether children or adults) to build as a way of thinking about purpose. For this reason, the technologies deployed in any particular classroom vary considerably: from simply hand tools like hammers, screwdrivers, and scissors, to power drills, boxcutters, soldering irons, and so on. Physical computing also plays a role in many classrooms: from Scratch add-ons like Makey Makey to micro:bits, to Arduino platforms. Again, the focus is not on the tools but on the process of deconstructing and then reconstructing an animatronic toy.

The model I deploy in my classroom is based on thinking routines formalized by Harvard's Project Zero, which themselves are based on Seymour Papert's ideas around constructioNism and "hard fun". To emphasize process and equity, my version of toy remixing relies on a simple setup and few instructions (the fewer the better). This leverages a learning model I have described elsewhere as "material learning" and focuses on developing learners' self-efficacy and empathy.

I did not invent Toy Hack Remix. In fact, toy remix variations show up at teacher professional learning events across multiple disciplines, e.g., ELA, social studies, the arts. My setup is based on materials and processes that have been shared and revised multiple times. An important contextual ingredient of my instructional strategy, however, includes the notion of stepping stone learning as distinct from scaffolded learning. In practice, Toy Hack Remix occurs in the curriculum as a set of material inquiry activities where learners have been invited to explore, play, and build with tools, materials, processes, and critical thinking routines that might have been unfamiliar to them (see comments about technologies above). In this process learners collect various "stepping stones" that they can then deploy in new patterns for new inquiries. When this way of thinking about thinking and learning has been introduced, students are ready for Toy Hack Remix. At that point, then, my lesson plan is fairly straight forward: Step One: Before deconstructing the toy, explore it from the outside; sketch what you think is inside. What do you think makes it work? Step Two: As you take the toy apart, document components and the connections between them. How accurate were your predictions? Revise your sketch as you go. Step Three: Put the toy together again. The reconstruction should translate some aspect of the toy’s original motion. For example, if the toy waves left and right, the reconstructed toy might undulate up and down.

Toy Hack Remix successfully repositions learning from an object to a process via this "translation" procedure. That is, for students, the key to translation is paying attention to the toy itself and remaining open to the serendipity of discovering how its parts work together. Awareness of structure invites a critique of the conventions that shape the toy, prompting students to imagine themselves as designers who can break free of manufacturers’ constraints. The evidence that this works is the joyful engagement that students demonstrate, accompanied by their full-on enthusiasm for what comes after they've made and shared their wacky, wonderful remixes. The anchor, to my mind, is the sense of empathy and self-efficacy that students exhibit in their reflective writing about process, about the value of learning as an exploratory but purposeful way of playing with tools and materials. Toy remixing begins with a product and becomes a process. The upside-down object — process as product— prompts thinking about learning itself, which leads to thinking critically about the learning systems within which we are mutually embedded.

The evidence that the learning model works is abundant (e.g., remixed toys and passionate reflections on why learning matters), but that doesn't mean the journey is complete; no, I've got a lot more to learn. The purpose of this presentation is to share what I'm learning and continue the search for fellow travelers who care about systemic reforms in schooling.


This presentation will focus on the procedures and context for Toy Hack Remix.

Context, content, process (5 mins)
Structure of the activity in detail (10 mins)
Examples from the learning in detail (10 mins)
Questions from the audience (5 mins)

Supporting research

The learning models described above have been explored by the following:

Cabral, M. & Justice, S. (2018). Material Inquiry: Digital Materials, People, and the Relationships Between Them. In E. Garber, L. Hochtritt, & M. Sharma (Eds.), Makers, Crafters, Educators: Working for Cultural Change. New York, NY & Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Goldberg, D.E., & Somerville, M. (2014). A whole new engineer: The coming revolution in engineering education. Threejoy Associates.

Justice, S. (2016). Learning to Teach in the Digital Age: New Materialities and Maker Paradigms in Schools. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Justice, S. (2017). Material learning in action: Building an arts-based research community. Art Education, 70(3), 39–48.

Justice, S. (2020). Designing the social interface: More than social, more than material. In A. Knochel, C. Liao, & R. Patton (Eds.) Critical Digital Making in Art Education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Justice, S., Bang, A., Lundgren, H., Marsick, V. J., Poell, R. F., & Yorks, L. (2020). Operationalizing reflection in experience-based workplace learning: A hybrid approach. Human Resource Development International, 23(1), 66-87.

Justice, S., Cabral, M. & Gugliotta, K. (2019). The crayon doesn’t do that: Early childhood and advanced technology. In R. Garner (Ed.) Exploring Digital Technologies for Art-Based Special Education: Models and Methods for the Inclusive K-12 Classroom. (122-131) New York, NY: Routledge.

Justice, S., Morrisson, E., & Yorks, L. (2020). Enacting reflection: A systems-thinking approach to workplace complexities. Advances in Developing Human Resources.

Justice, S., & Yorks, L. (2018). Incidental learning as an enacted encounter with materiality. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2018(159), 91-102.

Papert, S. (2002, June 24). How to make writing “hard fun.” Bangor Daily News.

Project Zero. (2010). Parts, purposes, complexities. The Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Yorks, L., Rotatori, D., Sung, S., & Justice, S. (2020). Workplace reflection in the age of AI: Materiality, Technology, and Machines. Advances in Developing Human Resources.

The Toy Hack Remix learning activity has been discussed here:

Exploratorium. (n.d.). Toy take apart. Exploratorium.

Flores, C. (2019a). Maker education and the STEM monster. In P. Blikstein, S. L. Martinez, H. A. Pang, & K. Jarrett (Eds.), Meaningful making 2: Projects and inspirations for fab labs + makerspaces (pp. 104-107). Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Flores, C. (2019b, November 11). The power of taking things apart: A toy dissection project at Naturally Growing School. Mountainmakers.

O’Malley, A. (2019). Toy hacking for accessibility. In P. Blikstein, S. L. Martinez, H. A. Pang, & K. Jarrett (Eds.), Meaningful making 2: Projects and inspirations for fab labs + makerspaces (p. 145). Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

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Dr. Sean Justice, Texas State University

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