I watch, enthralled, as layer upon layer of colorful plastic slowly morphs into connectors that, five minutes ago, existed only on a computer screen. My hope is that these connectors, which weigh only one gram each, will help young children learn to become thinkers, makers, and one day, innovators.
Over the past year, my younger brother and I designed, prototyped, and brought to market a STEAM educational toy business, 3Dux/design. From product design, R&D, and website creation to discussions about target markets and budgets, building a company has been both an educational experience and an exercise in creativity. Our flagship architectural modeling sets consist of 3D-printed connectors and geometric cardboard forms that allow our young designers to build anything imaginable from shapes provided and their own recycled cardboard.
The idea was born two summers ago when I was heading to tenth grade and took an architecture course at Columbia University in NYC. I fell in love with not just the aesthetics of buildings but also the idea that design is based on the function of space, how people use that space, and the effect that the design of that space has on behavior. In essence, I came to understand the integration of form and function. The following summer, I spent some time shadowing an industrial design firm and realized that similar concepts are used when designing products that people use on a daily basis.
The other thing I realized was that in all my years of taking science, math, and various art classes no one had enlightened me to the idea that these seemingly separate disciplines are really interrelated. No one introduced me to the concept fo STEAM education.
These experiences inspired me to create something innovative. I decided to design a product that would blend math and engineering concepts with art and creative play in a way that allows children the opportunity to understand the connectivity of the various fields. I rallied up the support of my brother, who helped with engineering the connectors, and our parents, who have helped guide us through the many challenges of starting a business.
Our Innovative Creation
What we came up with were a series of architectural modeling sets, composed of 6 uniquely shaped 3D printed connectors (yes- 170,000 connectors later, we still make each one ourselves) and paintable geometric cardboard shapes that children of all ages can use to build. The youngest designers learn fine motor skills, basic geometry, 3D spatial thinking and communication skills. Older students learn more complex engineering and geometry concepts, problem-solving skills, and collaboration. Our oldest students (educators themselves) have used the product for team-building exercises and higher level design thinking/prototyping experiences.
Beyond using our product as a stand-alone, we engineered these reusable connectors to fit most commercially available cardboard so our young designers never run out of raw material to work with. This also makes our product a cost-effective tool for schools and teaches children about creative repurposing
Journey So Far
Our first big break was when I applied for and received a grant to showcase our products at an event in Industry City, Brooklyn. All New American, a non-profit that supports young companies that produce American-made goods, offered to cover the cost of a booth at the show. For a company open just shy of one month, it was both exciting and inspiring to be taken seriously and given the opportunity to take part in the American Field Market. On a personal level, it gave me instant confidence in both myself and my product. For the company, this market opened doors for us and helped elevate 3Dux/Design from a fledgling startup to a “mature” business with real-world validation.
We showcased our architectural sets in front of thousands of visitors. We watched children interact with our product, discussed the concept and our mission with parents, and unknowingly chatted with journalists. Beyond getting great feedback and making more sales than we could have hoped for, when Martha Stewart Living named us as one of their “Favorite American-Made Goods to Gift” for 2017, 3Dux/Design went instantly from a small local business to a national brand. It also gave us the external validation needed to get us wholesale deals and opened doors to unique sales channels.
Since launching the product in September 2017,I have had experiences that I would have never imagined myself doing just one year ago. I have run STEM events in elementary and middle schools, speaking to children at local programs, judged invention conventions, I was a finalist at the CT Innovations “Women of Innovation Awards”. I missed my biology class to be interviewed on WHTN, channel 12 news and pitched Shark Tank-style (and won) to a panel of judges at the CTNEXT Entrepreneur Awards.
While these experiences have been exciting, what really inspires me to forge forward with 3Dux/design is simple. Children love this product, parents enjoy watching their children put down the iPad and build something with their hands, and educators see the true value of our simple, elegant building sets.
What The Future Holds
Overall, I could never have imagined such rapid growth; with every day comes new and exciting opportunities. But with every success, there are new hurdles to overcome. We now need to work on converting our provisional patent to a non-provisional patent, getting our product into more schools, which has proven to come with many layers of red tape, and scaling. We are working to streamline our cardboard cutting, connector manufacturing and packaging methods for higher volumes. We are heading toward larger venues like the ASTRA Toys show in New Orleans and the NSTA STEM Forum in Philadelphia and the Destination Imagination EXPO in Knoxville. And of course, there are AP exams, the prom, finals, and graduation.
I am excited to bring my growing company to St. Louis next year when I attend Washington University. I am not sure which pathway my education will take me but I look forward to meeting new people and learning new skills that will help me get 3Dux/Design into homes and schools across America.
All Image Credits: https://www.3duxdesign.com/
About The Author
Ayana Klein is the Co-Founder, Lead Product Developer and Graphic Designer of 3Dux/design. She is a senior in high school and is heading towards a career in engineering and industrial design where she can blend her love of the arts with her talents in math and science to create new products that will help solve today’s problems and keep our planet green.
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