Engineering student creates solar-powered unicorn to inspire careers in STEM

Ella Gardiner, who this week received her degree in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at SU’s December graduation. PICTURE: STEFAN ELS

Graduation is an opportunity to not only celebrate the qualifications of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) students but also the creativity that stems from the pursuit of academic excellence.

As part of her final-year project, Ella Gardiner, who this week received her degree in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at SU’s December graduation, has developed a unique educational toy to inspire South African girls to follow careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Ms Gardiner is the creator of a cute solar-powered unicorn that can walk and flap its wings, accompanied by a beautiful storybook explaining how a mechanical toy works.

The new graduate was inspired by the American toy company Goldieblox®, founded by engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, who recognised a gap in the toy market for promoting STEM toys for girls.

The topic was proposed by her lecturer Deborah Blaine (associate professor at the Mechanics Division), Ms Gardiner explains.

“When I was choosing a topic for my final year project, this specific one captivated me as it was unique. I liked the idea of being able to combine creativity with engineering to make something that would have an impact on little girls who weren’t as fortunate as I to be exposed to the possibility of engineering.”

Ms Gardiner’s unicorn consists of separate pieces that the child can assemble into the unicorn while following the story of Aisha, a little girl who wants to see her unicorn come to life.

Core engineering concepts are explained, such as how a photovoltaic cell provides solar power to a motor and how the motor drives a gearbox that, in turn, works a crank-and-shaft mechanism.

Although there are affordable and accessible STEM toys available in South Africa, they do not specifically cater to girls. While the Goldieblox® concept has succeeded in America, it does not market its products in Africa, and importing the toys is expensive, Gardiner explains.

Inspiration also came from her personal experience. “I remember as a child seeing all these cool robot toys that you could build yourself, and I always wished that I could have that, but if only they could be pink and sparkly and pretty.

“Growing up, my older brother and I got a lot of hand-me-down toys from friends, so we usually ended up with a mix of toys where we would construct the most fascinating worlds for our characters.

“I also had my doll house and Barbie collection, as any young girl would. But my favourite was LEGO. I would spend months saving my pocket money to purchase a new set to add to my collection.

“Even today I wish I could buy all the cool sets they have available, and I love to see how many more girly sets they are starting to make.”

In addition to designing and constructing the toy, Ms Gardiner wanted to find a way to make it accessible to the average South African schoolgirl. This is where the accompanying storybook comes in.

“The storybook is such a powerful tool as it allowed me to create a character that could act as a STEM role model to girls who may not have one, while also explaining the inner workings of the toy to the child.

“I approached it by taking the engineering concepts to their basics while ensuring that the information remains accurate and then added the visual appeal for children by using lots of pictures to aid in conveying the information,” she says.

While Ms Gardiner enjoys art and would have loved to illustrate the book herself, time constraints meant she had to get help with the illustrations. She designed the book and content and collaborated with a digital arts student from Wits University, Tamara Tesoriero, who brought the story to life with her skills.

The reaction to her innovation has been overwhelming, says Ms Gardiner.

“Everyone loved it. I received so much positive feedback all through the project. I think people enjoyed seeing something that looked pretty in the engineering faculty. It was a fun project and that comes through when people look at the end result. I’m really happy about that, as it is, after all, a toy.”

Ms Gardiner considers herself fortunate to have grown up in a family where she was told she could become anything as long as she worked hard.

“Both of my parents studied STEM degrees, my mother studied botany and zoology at Stellenbosch University and my father studied entomology at Rhodes University.

“My mom went on to become a teacher and my dad has his PhD from the University of Zimbabwe. I think he was always my inspiration to push myself to excel in my career, but both taught me a lot about hard work and perseverance to achieve your goals.”

She was inspired to study engineering by the idea of being able to make an impact, Ms Gardiner says. “When it came to choosing a career, I decided that engineering is one of the best pathways to end up in a position where I could be a part of innovation that impacts how we as a society live.”

Ms Gardiner’s unicorn creation doesn’t have a name yet and she’s keen to get some help in that regard.

“I am terrible at giving things names. My examiners suggested we call it ‘Ella’, but I’m not too sure how I feel about that, so I think I’ll need to give it a little more thought. I’m definitely open to suggestions…”

After using so much creative energy to complete her BEng degree, ingMs Gardiner looked forward to catching up on sleep after graduation day.

“It has been a long four years and I am happy to be on the other side. I will be taking the holidays to catch up on my other hobbies like sewing and nurturing my creative side a bit more.”

This year Ms Gardiner will start to work as a graduate engineer in Cape Town to get some experience, but she dreams of one day working in the toy-making industry.

“It is such a powerful tool to inspire the future generation and representation is so important for young children. I wish I could have had toys like the unicorn I developed in this project as a child.

“The toy is the intellectual property of Stellenbosch University, so I don’t think I’ll be selling this exact concept. But I would love to one day be part of the development of the toy industry to make more inclusive toys.

“I am open to all possibilities, and I think I’m going to see where life takes me. Who knows, maybe one day I can make my own line of engineering toys for girls,” she says.