Saving the World One Toy at a Time

7/12/19 Pratt School of Engineering

With outreach in the Durham community as well as online, Project Tadpole makes playtime accessible for children with disabilities

Two students work to fix a stuffed animal with electronics
Saving the World One Toy at a Time

Despite the intense intellectual demands of an engineering degree, some diligent and community-minded Pratt students have found the time to give back to the city of Durham in a creative and unique way. Project Tadpole is a club built around applying engineering skills to modify toys for the benefit of disabled children.

The engineering gurus of Project Tadpole partner with local organizations such as the Durham Public Schools or the Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital to upgrade toys. These toys have various sources and applications— some originate directly from retailers while others are specialized tools used by learning specialists or medical personnel.

However, the members of the club know it won’t stop there. The club envisions a future in which they can supply the knowledge necessary to make toys accessible for the disabled to anybody with the desire to contribute by means of both live and video tutorials. They have successfully conducted events in the past to teach local community members skills like soldering wires or how specific modifications can make a toy accessible. They are also in the midst of recording new video tutorials as part of a more global outreach process.

Two students work to modify a small children's toyProject Tadpole is striving to provide access to skills typically cultivated at higher-education institutions to the general public in a similar manner to the extensive knowledge given through nonprofit organizations like the well-known Khan Academy. “Next, we hope to reach even greater audiences, so that if someone from Texas was interested in modifying toys for their kids, they could go to our website and follow our video tutorials,” says current club co-president Martin Li.

A club with such a unique purpose is sure to have an equally unique culture. Working out of the “sub-basement” of the Teer Engineering Building, as many as 15 members of Project Tadpole come together each week to build toys while enjoying each other’s company and the harmony of a common goal.

“I joined Project Tadpole because one of my good friends told me to check it out with them. It was pretty fun taking apart things and putting them back together, so I just ended up going back again and again,” explained Li, further emphasizing the duality of the club’s laid-back nature and the determined focus of its members to give back to the community. The culture of Project Tadpole is healthily distributed between these two aspects, simultaneously nurturing its members’ skills as they learn how to contribute to its projects while allowing them to step outside of the surrounding high-pressure academic environment.

Despite all these amazing declarations, one may still be left wondering, “But aren’t there a proliferation of other clubs that perform the same functions at a university like Duke?” Project Tadpole begs to differ—when asked about what distinguished Project Tadpole from other engineering clubs at Duke, Li was quick to respond.

“Project Tadpole aims to improve the local community. In contrast to other engineering clubs which often revolve around an internal project of building a prototype or a product, our product is more of a service to the community,” said Li. “We’re able to help improve the lives of other people and are constantly trying to come up with new ways to do so.”

Wish the members of this club luck as they ambitiously reach out further into the Durham community and beyond—to Texas, new countries and even new continents as they aspire to continue improving the quality of life and fun that disabled children are able to experience as they grow up. And while you’re at it, maybe the audacious creativity behind Project Tadpole will give you your own inspiration to see how your skills could benefit the greater community and provide to those in need.

Ryan Piersma is a junior studying electrical engineering and computer science.