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Dr. AnnMarie Thomas works (and plays) to empower, support, and inspire today's innovators, engineers, and inventors, as well as those of tomorrow. A seasoned maker, tinkerer, and educator, Dr. Thomas heads the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, where her research group explores how to integrate joy into learning and working as they partner with an eclectic network of collaborators that includes chefs, circus performers, and pre-schoolers.

An Associate Professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Thomas presented her invention Squishy Circuits - a homemade play-do that helps children learn how to build electrical circuits - in the TED Talk, "Hands-on Science with Squishy Circuits." She was invited to the White House two times to demonstrate her electric play-do as part of the National Week of Makers and the White House Maker Faire. Squishy Circuits is now used worldwide by teachers and parents to introduce children to electrical engineering.

Dr. Thomas is the co-founder and former director of the Center for Engineering Education at the University of St. Thomas. She has also served as Founding Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative, a non-profit organization that helps educators and institutions cultivate engaging learning experiences that let youth and children be makers. Dr. Thomas is the author of Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation and currently teaches classes on machine design, product design, and PK-12 engineering. Additionally, she is an amateur aerialist and dedicated mother, who has vast experience teaching her young daughters the joy of design and engineering through hands-on projects.

Full Profile

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas joined the faculty of the University of St. Thomas in the fall of 2006, where she is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering, the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, and the Opus College of Business. She is the founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab, through which she leads a team of students looking at the playful side of engineering, developing Squishy Circuits, the science of circus, and toy design curricula, as well as exploring ways to encourage children, of all ages, to embrace playful learning.

Alongside her colleagues, she founded and directed the University of St. Thomas Center for Engineering Education (CEE), where they develop and teach engineering courses for P-12 educators and conduct research on engineering at the pre-collegiate level. Additionally, she teaches Engineering Graphics, Machine Design, Dynamics (with Circus Lab), Toy Design, Product Design for an Aging Population, and Brain Machine Interfaces (seminar).

Dr. Thomas served as the Founding Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative, where she established the national Maker Corps program and laid the groundwork for this nonprofit. Its mission is to “create more opportunities for young people to make, and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark interest in science, technology, engineering, math, the arts—and learning as a whole.”

In the past, she worked on underwater robotics (at MIT, Caltech, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), specializing in biologically inspired propulsion. In this effort, she consulted on projects ranging from the design/creation of a “musical earthquake-playing robot” to the initial research for a book on earthquakes in Los Angeles. At Caltech, she founded the Caltech Robotics Outreach Group (CROG) and the Caltech/JPL/LEGO Middle School Robotics Conference.

Dr. Thomas lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and two daughters.

Other points of possible interest include ASEE North Midwest Section Outstanding Educator of the Year (2010), ID Magazine Annual Design Review “Design Distinction” (2009), amateur aerialist, National Academy of Engineering CASEE New Faculty Fellow (2008), P.E.O. National Scholar Award (2005-2006), juggler, National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (2001-2004), painter, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineerings Undergraduate Honor Paper Prize (2001), reader, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers Undergraduate Scholarship (2001).

AnnMarie Thomas ON Speaking Back to top


We need to be open to new experiences and not take ourselves so seriously. If you’re a tech CEO and you only talk to other technologists, you’re missing out on a world of new ideas. Go talk to some dancers, some kindergarten teachers, and maybe a professional athlete.

SPEAKING.COM: What do you want people to learn/take away from your presentations? 

THOMAS: The biggest take away that I try to get across is that everyone, in any position, can have a playful attitude towards their work. This doesn’t have to involve a major change; it can be as simple as reading a silly book your kids suggest, or taking an art class through your city’s community education program. We need to be open to new experiences and not take ourselves so seriously. If you’re a tech CEO and you only talk to other technologists, you’re missing out on a world of new ideas. Go talk to some dancers, some kindergarten teachers, and maybe a professional athlete. Seek out new experiences.

SPEAKING.COM: What kind of special prep work do you do prior to an event?  How do you prepare for your speaking engagements?

THOMAS: I love events that give me the opportunity to do something unexpected. Recently for a European conference, I was asked to discuss play and imagination. In discussions with the event planning committee it became clear they wanted a presentation that would surprise and delight their audience. As I was already planning on discussing some of my food-based collaborations, we arranged for one of my pastry chef collaborators to travel with me, and incorporated musical, interactive sweets including musical cupcakes and a glowing cake that puffed edible confetti into the air. These pastries were far more than just props; they were a key part of my presentation’s message about collaboration and unexpected combinations of skills.

SPEAKING.COM: Have you had any particularly memorable speaking engagements / unusual situations arise while on the road?

THOMAS: Once I was giving a talk to a room full of people from various creative teams at a Fortune 100 company, and the projection system didn’t work. No one in the room could figure it out and the tech team could not be found. What now? Well, it was a talk on play, making and creativity, so what better situation than that to do some improv. From juggling props to a discussion with the audience, it turned into a whimsical afternoon that marked the beginning of a multi-year relationship between that company and me.

The idea of finding unusual and whimsical ways to look at challenges is universally applicable.

SPEAKING.COM: What types of audiences would most benefit from your message?

THOMAS: When I first began speaking on play and design, many of the events I was asked to present at were education focused. However, I was pleasantly surprised to start getting requests for the same topic from companies (both large and small) and conferences whose audiences ranged from librarians to data scientists. The idea of finding unusual and whimsical ways to look at challenges is universally applicable.

SPEAKING.COM: Which of your keynote speaking topics are your favorites and why?

THOMAS: I love prompting people to really think hard about where new ideas come from and how being more playful in your approach to life can help boost your creativity and inspire others to embrace playfulness as well.

A well executed presentation is like a one act play. Everything from costume to words must be considered and chosen carefully.

SPEAKING.COM: What inspired you to start doing speaking engagements?

THOMAS: I’ve been a professor for over a decade now, but didn’t originally imagine that I’d be a speaker outside of my classrooms. However, when I started getting requests to present to companies and community organizations, I found that I loved the challenge of crafting presentations that resonate with particular audiences.

Prior to teaching, I spent over a decade in various theater ensembles, and have always viewed presenting and teaching as theater. A well executed presentation is like a one act play. Everything from costume to words must be considered and chosen carefully.

SPEAKING.COM: How do you keep your audience engaged and actively listening during your keynotes? Do you use case studies, personal stories and/or in your speeches?

THOMAS: An element of delight is always helpful for keeping an audience engaged. Be it an unexpected story, an intriguing image on a slide, or a seemingly-magical demonstration, I look for ways to surprise the audience and keep them curious about what comes next. Having had the opportunity to collaborate with such a wide variety of organizations, companies, and individuals means I’ve also got quite a few interesting and amusing stories to share.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the successes you've helped clients achieve?

THOMAS: Not surprisingly, a lot of my consulting work tends to be on art+technology and STEM education projects for kids and families, be they television shows, books, or even museums. Usually the main goal is to make these topics interesting to a broad audience.

The really fun work for me is when clients outside of these realms allow us to take the same approach. For example, I’m currently working with a professional music group that asked me to dream up new experiences for their tour. While it’s not explicitly a project on play, my working style immediately brings that element to the table. The musicians came for a “play date” with my research team and tried different technologies and tools. We noted which ones got them excited, and I’m really looking forward to unveiling the results on their tour next year.

Some other examples that come to mind are the Imagicademy advising I did for Disney and working on food chemistry with the Alinea group.


AnnMarie Thomas Speaker Videos Back to top

AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: TEDxTC


Creativity speaker and engineering professor, AnnMarie Thomas gives us an intriguing glimpse at how makers are made and what we as parents, teachers, and mentors can do to help capacitate the next generation of inventors and problem solvers.

After speaking with hundreds of engineers and innovators about the influences that shaped their careers, Dr. Thomas discovered one major common thread. Everyone she interviewed had grown up in a household where real hand tools abounded and they were engaging in hands-on projects from their earliest memories onward. From roboticists to pipe organ builders, these makers learned to be resourceful at a young age, scavenging the neighborhood for scrap parts, constructing three-story high tree houses, and crafting their own screw drivers when one was needed but not available.

Keeping this in mind, Dr. Thomas argues that there is reason to be concerned about the future of innovation, citing a 2009 study which showed that 83% of teens that year spent less than 2 hours per week working with their hands, yet an average of over 53 hours per week on entertainment media. "It's starting to be easier to find a cooking video game than it is to find a school that still teaches home ec," Dr. Thomas observes. "And I still eat real food so this worries me. I wonder, where are we going to be learning these real skills? You wouldn't wait until a student got to conservatory to give them their first real piano, but are we doing that with our future makers?"

AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: The Importance of Unusual Collaborations


AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: TED U Demo


AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: World Maker Faire, "Every Child a Maker"



Speeches / Speaking Engagements Back to top


Dr. AnnMarie Thomas demonstrates how play and whimsy can exponentially boost our capacity as makers and inventors. For over a decade, she has been at the forefront of creating engaging environments that allow children, university students, and adults to develop the skills, tools, and joy they need to turn ideas into realities. Whether you are a multinational corporation or an elementary school, Dr. Thomas can show you how to incorporate hands-on activities into your organization, so that your group can unlock a fervor for learning, designing, and creating.    

Play to Learn, Play to Create
In this talk, AnnMarie Thomas highlights the importance of play in learning environments, and discusses the projects of the Playful Learning Lab.

Making Makers
AnnMarie addresses the important role that making played in the childhoods of many of today's adult innovators, educators, designers, and engineers. This is contrasted with some of the ways in which today's children are allowed to explore the world around them.

Workshops
Dr. Thomas also creates and teaches custom workshops on topics such as the Maker Movement, Creative Circuitry, Play, and Design, for audiences ranging from association meetings to corporate retreats.



AnnMarie Thomas Speaker Testimonials Back to top

“AnnMarie Thomas didn't just speak at our Factory Of Imagination special event, she exploded onto the stage with a highly creative, energetic and unforgettable presentation. Not only is AnnMarie an excellent science communicator, but she really goes the extra mile to bring complicated concepts to life. You will never find a speaker quite like her. She creates truly unforgettable magic on the stage.”
-Adam Montandon, co-founder at Factory of Imagination




Exclusive Interview with AnnMarie Thomas

You’re not under pressure to have the “perfect” solution when you’re playing… When we are playful and exploring, then, we are more likely to enter a creative space where new and unexpected ideas present themselves.
In this interview, creativity keynote speaker, Dr. AnnMarie Thomas discusses:
  • The vital connection between playfulness and success.
  • How to create a culture of playfulness at work or school.
  • Concerns about the future of innovation in the United States.

  • * Please note that while this speaker’s specific speaking fee falls within the range posted above (for Continental U.S. based events), fees are subject to change. For current fee information or international event fees (which are generally 50-75% more than U.S based event fees), please contact us.

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    “AnnMarie Thomas didn't just speak at our Factory Of Imagination special event, she exploded onto the stage with a highly creative, energetic and unforgettable presentation. Not only is AnnMarie an excellent science communicator, but she really goes the extra mile to bring complicated concepts to life. You will never find a speaker quite like her. She creates truly unforgettable magic on the stage.”
    -Adam Montandon, co-founder at Factory of Imagination


    Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation
    This is a book for parents and other educators—both formal and informal, who are curious about the intersections of learning and making. Through stories, research, and data, it builds the case for why it is crucial to encourage today’s youth to be makers—to see the world as something they are actively helping to create. For those who are new to the Maker Movement, some history and introduction is given as well as practical advice for getting kids started in making. For those who are already familiar with the Maker Movement, this book provides biographical information about many of the “big names” and unsung heroes of the Maker Movement while also highlighting many of the attributes that make this a movement that so many people are passionate about.
    Play to Learn, Play to Create
    In this talk, AnnMarie Thomas highlights the importance of play in learning environments, and discusses the projects of the Playful Learning Lab.

    Making Makers
    AnnMarie addresses the important role that making played in the childhoods of many of today's adult innovators, educators, designers, and engineers. This is contrasted with some of the ways in which today's children are allowed to explore the world around them.

    Workshops
    Dr. Thomas also creates and teaches custom workshops on topics such as the Maker Movement, Creative Circuitry, Play, and Design, for audiences ranging from association meetings to corporate retreats.


    AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: TEDxTC


    Creativity speaker and engineering professor, AnnMarie Thomas gives us an intriguing glimpse at how makers are made and what we as parents, teachers, and mentors can do to help capacitate the next generation of inventors and problem solvers.

    After speaking with hundreds of engineers and innovators about the influences that shaped their careers, Dr. Thomas discovered one major common thread. Everyone she interviewed had grown up in a household where real hand tools abounded and they were engaging in hands-on projects from their earliest memories onward. From roboticists to pipe organ builders, these makers learned to be resourceful at a young age, scavenging the neighborhood for scrap parts, constructing three-story high tree houses, and crafting their own screw drivers when one was needed but not available.

    Keeping this in mind, Dr. Thomas argues that there is reason to be concerned about the future of innovation, citing a 2009 study which showed that 83% of teens that year spent less than 2 hours per week working with their hands, yet an average of over 53 hours per week on entertainment media. "It's starting to be easier to find a cooking video game than it is to find a school that still teaches home ec," Dr. Thomas observes. "And I still eat real food so this worries me. I wonder, where are we going to be learning these real skills? You wouldn't wait until a student got to conservatory to give them their first real piano, but are we doing that with our future makers?"

    AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: The Importance of Unusual Collaborations


    AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: TED U Demo


    AnnMarie Thomas, Creativity Keynote Speaker: World Maker Faire, "Every Child a Maker"



    Creativity Speaker Dr. AnnMarie Thomas Inspires Innovators to Play

    By AnnMarie Thomas

    Innovation keynote speaker and expert, Dr. AnnMarie Thomas works (and plays) to empower, support, and inspire today’s innovators, engineers, and inventors, as well as those of tomorrow. A seasoned maker, tinkerer, and educator, Dr. Thomas heads the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, where her research group explores how to integrate joy ... more

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