NDSU’s hacking elves: Young engineers spending evenings adapting toys for kids with disabilities

Many popular kids’ toys talk, sing or move at the push of a button — but kids who can’t physically push those buttons are often left to watch as other kids play.

Electrical engineering student Henry Wolf modifies the controls of a stuffed toy at North Dakota State University in Fargo earlier this month. Dan Gunderson / MPR News

FARGO -- Henry Wolf sat hunched over a table last week, meticulously trying to dissect a plush stuffed pig.

"I've been playing with this for like 20 minutes now and the furthest I've gotten is getting the screws out,” he said.

His workspace at North Dakota State University was littered with tools, well past the time that classes had ended.

Wolf is a grad student in electrical engineering at NDSU. He was trying to expose the little pink pig’s circuit board, tucked away inside a plastic case that's glued, sewed and zip-tied into its fluffy guts. He needed to hack the circuit that makes the pig’s tail move when a tiny switch on its foot is pressed.

"We're basically bypassing that on/off switch,” he said. “The trick is kind of undoing what they did at the factory.”


The simple circuitry work — once he finally reached it — wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

With luck and a little sewing skill, the pig will look like new — and will be ready for it’s final destination in the home of a child with special needs, with a large external button that a child can push with their elbow, knee or head.

Christmas shopping can be frustrating for parents of young children who have special needs.

Many popular kids’ toys talk, sing or move at the push of a button — but kids who can’t physically push those buttons are often left to watch as other kids play.

"You can't go to Walmart, you can't go to Target, and buy something off the shelf,” said Mark Coppin, director of disability services at North Dakota State University. “And these are the popular toys that all the kids are playing with.”

So last year, Coppin proposed a collaboration with Eta Kappa Nu, NDSU’s electrical engineering honor society, whose members — Wolf among them — are now spending their evenings hacking into toys off the shelf, so kids with disabilities can enjoy them.

“We wanted to be able to make it affordable,” Coppin said. “But we want to also make it accessible."

Those switches, for instance, are expensive, so students install simple jacks — like the ones that plug into headphones. That way, one external switch can be used on several adapted toys.


This year, the team experimented with having switches 3D-printed on campus, reducing the cost of a switch from $60 to about $2.

Wolf helped with that first adaptive toy clinic last year at NDSU. He's back this year, he said, because it's a chance to use his skills for a good cause.

"I think it's kind of an under-looked thing,” he said. “I hadn't really heard about it until I did this last year, it seems there's a lot fewer options for toys for kids with major disabilities."

The students modified about 50 toys last year in a single event. This year, because of pandemic restrictions, they have to work in small groups of two or three — so they hope to finish about 30 toys before Christmas.

Jerika Cleveland, the president of Eta Kappa Nu and a Ph.D. student, arranges the work for the student volunteers.

"I just jumped at the chance,” she said. “I think this is awesome.”

Cleveland said she grew up with a cousin who needed physical therapy. "And he had friends that were in wheelchairs,” she said. “And that kind of inspired me to become an engineer and help people."

While Cleveland coordinates the students, Coppin connects with families through schools or therapists and does recon work in the toy aisles of Walmart and Target.


"I'll hit the switches and see what happens and how it activates. I'm going, ‘Oh yeah, this would really be a good switch toy,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “So when parents are saying, ‘What toys should I get from my child?’ I'm going, 'Hey, you know what, they have this toy that does this.’”

Coppin said it’s been fun to pick out toys — and watching kids play, once they have been adapted for them, is a thrill. But he also said those toys have benefits beyond play, as kids grow older.

"Using those switches to activate toys is that stepping stone to much more advanced skills later,” he said. “It might be a toy today that they're working on. Tomorrow, it might be using that switch to access a communication device or a computer."

The Eta Kappa Nu engineering students might never meet the kids who will play with the toys they’re adapting, but they are feeling the pleasure of giving.

"Knowing that a kid who might not be able to interact with this toy normally is now able to play with it, that just makes me feel really good,” said Cleveland.

“It's rewarding and I get to help make a Christmas a little bit happier for another child."

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