There were plenty of engineering-themed toys on view at this weekend's Toy and Game Fair in Chicago, but none of them came close to NASA's contribution in terms of sheer cred. On hand at the fair were NASA reps who demonstrated a mechanism built from the agency's new LittleBits kit.
First announced in April, LittleBits' Space Kit was actually developed in tandem with NASA's Innovative Projects Office. As NASA reps told me this weekend, the office is developing several toys and games aimed at getting kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths), including a multiplayer game that pairs kids to solve problems and launch missions.
The LittleBits kit, meanwhile, is all about building with electronic components. After all, as one NASA education specialist said of the collaboration, "electromagnetic energy is key to everything we do at NASA." There are all sorts of things you can build with the kit, but at the Toyfair this weekend NASA reps were showing kids how the kit can make a grappling arm out of LittleBits components and a wooden ruler.
This is called a "grapple fixture" like the one used aboard the ISS. It utilises a double-walled circular port edged with — in this case — strings that intertwine when the inner ring is rotated. It's a bit like a claw, making it possible to grip objects in space.
It's a pretty neat example of what you can build with a few household objects and some snap-together electronic components. At the Toyfair, NASA's reps were letting kids try it out for themselves — but not before each chief scientist chose their own "intern:" Unfailingly, a parent.