Engineering for Children in Need: A Real-World Engineering Application

By Meg West

During my first year at Ohio State, way back in 2013, I was enrolled in the Green Engineering Scholar’s Program. One of the program’s requirements was to participate in a service activity, and one of the available options was a toy adaptation workshop. And that’s how I found myself involved with the Toy Adaptation Program at Ohio State.

The Toy Adaptation Program (TAP) facilitates workshops that teach engineering students and any other volunteers how to adapt toys for children with disabilities. We go in and play with a normal, everyday toy. Then we break it open, look at the circuitry inside, and attach a port in parallel to the circuit. From there, we attach an accessible switch or button that can activate the toy. Once we’ve done this, children with disabilities can play with the toys, without compromising the original functionality, using these external switches.

I immediately fell in love after my first workshop, and I have been involved with TAP ever since. I handle everything from workshop operations, toy repair, ordering supplies, donating toys to families and libraries, and pretty much everything you can think of within the toy adaptation process.

Some volunteers and students working on adapting a toy.


We have started doing workshops for any and all engineering students. I found TAP through the Green Scholar’s program, but the program also runs these workshops for other organizations on campus, such as Women in Engineering and Minorities in Engineering. We have also incorporated workshops into freshman engineering classrooms, such as ENGR 1181: Fundamentals of Engineering 1. When students first learn about circuits in engineering, it can be hard to understand and students often struggle and/or get discouraged. However, once they get to the toy adaptation section of the lab, I’ve seen real improvement in student performances. The students recognize that they have a real-world application and it really helps them engage in their learning.

So what if you want to get involved, but don’t feel you’re qualified? I have good news for you: You don’t need to be an engineering student or have any other previous experience to adapt toys with us. We have created different levels of instruction on how to adapt the toys. The most basic instructions come with pictures that tell you, “this is where this screw comes out, and this is where that switch goes.” We make these simple instructions for family members of children with disabilities so they can learn to adapt toys themselves and be self-sufficient in making new toys for their children in the future. They also work great for volunteers who are new to the adaptation process. Essentially, you just need to know how to follow directions.

My team members and I with some of the toys we have adapted for children with disabilities.


Once you see the process a few times, you start to figure out what’s on the inside of most toys. Every single toy is different, but we usually come across many of the same kinds of circuits. We simply apply basic circuit knowledge; when the circuit is open, electricity doesn’t flow, and when it’s closed, it does flow. An added button closes the circuit. We just add another wire in parallel to the circuit that’s already there. After seeing the process a few times, anyone can become an expert toy adapter.

One of the most enriching experiences for me in the program occurred about a year ago. I was assigned an Elmo toy to adapt for a little girl in Nationwide Children’s Hospital here in Columbus. The only parts of her body she could move were her fingers. Even then, she could only twitch them a little bit. We made a custom switch for her; she would be able to operate the toy by wrapping a string around her finger that she could pull to activate the toy. Once I finished the adaptation, I was invited to come along and donate it directly. I accepted the offer.

When we presented her with the toy, her eyes immediately lit up because Elmo was her absolute favorite. She knew what to do, and her fingers started twitching; she wanted to pull on that switch and finally play with her own Elmo toy. The look in her eyes said it all: “This is mine. I know what to do, I want it now, give it to me.”

It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. When you’re working on toys in the lab, you understand the toy is going to a child in need. But once you actually give it to a child in need and you see the happiness that that toy is bringing the child, along with the joy and relief in the parent’s eyes, you realize just how special the work you are doing for these families really is.

Aside from helping these families in need, we hope the program inspires students to stay in engineering. When you have a personal connection and you feel like you can actually help people with your degree, you can see what you are capable of accomplishing with the skills that you gain getting your degree in engineering.

The TAP is constantly growing. When I first started, we were only holding one workshop per semester. Now, we are now doing one workshop per month, at least!

If you would like to join the program or want to learn more about TAP, visit the official website at