The word ‘research’ often brings to mind doctors in lab coats, looking through microscopes. One VCU student decided not to wait for his Ph.D. and applied for his first patent before he turned 21.
During his time spent in the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program, graphic design major Michael Walker worked to create a toy that could help children learn how to do multiplication through tactile means instead of straight memorization.
Like most freshmen at VCU, Walker had to take UNIV 200. His final research project was based on how the colors and shapes of foliage in paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard each had a certain meaning. Later that semester, Walker applied to research programs for the summer. Walker was placed in a program that involved working with 3D printers. Guiding Walker was VCU Engineering professor Ramana Pidaparti, Ph.D. Walker said he was surprised when Pidaparti told him there would be no guidelines to his research
“When I came in, my professor said ‘hey, you can do whatever you want with this project,’” Walker said. “When you have that opportunity, anything is possible.”
Walker used his notes from his honors UNIV project and began to expand upon the idea of colors and shapes changing an image’s meaning.
During multiple visits to the library, Walker researched shapes and different ways of early education. He found that some toys, like the shape-sorter box, were good learning tools but children would not them pick up without parental guidance. Another example Walker gave was the Zoob building set, designed to educate children on biology and zoology. He said children were more likely to use the building set for simple playtime activities, instead of growing science skills. Walker said some toys inspired him, like a book of paintings by Picasso that was matched with braille.
During a break from his research, Walker met with his younger cousin while she was studying math at home. She used her fingers to help her count, which led Walker to incorporate early childhood education into his project.
“I remember having difficulties with math as a child,” Walker said. “But I was also interested in being a well-rounded person … the more I can do to help children with education in general is very important.”
When he returned to the program, Walker began to develop a children’s toy that would combine tactile learning to teach multiplication. Pidaparti said he met with Walker every week to check on his progress.
“We would meet for half-an-hour to one hour, brainstorm, and make changes,” Pidaparti said.
With the help of an engineering student, Walker designed a translucent, pyramid-like object that had holes on the sides that would represent numbers one through five. Next, he created rods that would overlap, creating a visual answer to the math problem. At first the rods were clear, but Walker decided to add color so when certain rods overlapped, they would create a new color. With the new change, Walker said children could also learn how the color wheel worked. He named his final product the Color Cross Cube.
Pidaparti said the design was simple enough to use plastic and a laser cutter instead of a 3D printer.
“In terms of the cost, it was less expensive to use plastic laser cutting instead of 3D printing,” Pidaparti said.
After finishing his project, Walker wrote a paper to summarize his work. In the fall of 2013, Walker attended the ASME District F Early Career Technical Conference in Alabama to promote his research. Walker’s toy received a provisional patent while he was in Alabama. Pidaparti said a provisional patent was a better option, because a full patent is costly to obtain.
“A provisional patent is around $100 or so, which is much less expensive than a real patent,” Pidaparti said. “A real patent can cost $12,000-$15,000.”
By the end of 2014, Walker said he hopes to receive funding through VCU to get a full patent for his toy.
“I would like to sell it so I could get the royalties and fund more research,” Walker said.
Walker said he plans to go to more conferences in the future and he is open to working with other students for more research.