AnnMarie Thomas Profile

  • An associate professor of engineering and director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Thomas' research and teaching style demonstrate how the incorporation of play into work and learning is crucial to our development as innovators and inventors.

  • Dr. Thomas is the inventor of Squishy Circuits, a special homemade play-do that teaches children how to build electrical circuits and has been featured at TED as well as the White House Maker Faire.

  • Dr. Thomas is the author of Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation and was the Founding Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative, a non-profit organization that helps educators and institutions cultivate engaging learning experiences to motivate and capacitate the next generation of innovators.
  • 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 include a diverse group of global brands; world-famous artists, rock stars, and dancers; star chefs; and even preschoolers!

    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. One of Dr. Thomas’ newest projects is co-creating the new educational initiative, OK Go Sandbox with the popular band OK Go.

    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.

    • View Extended/Alternate Bio

      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 Speaking Videos

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    AnnMarie Thomas's Speech Descriptions

    Professor AnnMarie Thomas demonstrates how play can exponentially boost our capacity as makers and inventors. For over a decade, Dr. Thomas has been at the forefront of creating engaging environments that allow people of all ages to develop the skills, tools, and joy they need to turn ideas into realities. Whether you are a multinational corporation or university, Professor 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 innovating.

    Professor Thomas customizes all her talks with the latest research and studies. Her material is always presented with humor, beautiful imagery, interactivity, demos and imaginative case studies. Audiences leave her presentations feeling entertained, inspired and ready to innovate and collaborate!


    Building a Culture of Creativity and Collaboration to Spark Innovation

    Do you want to bring more innovative thinking and problem solving to your organization? In this talk, Professor Thomas will teach your team the tools for creating a collaborative and creative organizational culture.

    Many organizations know that staying competitive means fostering a culture where employees feel comfortable voicing and trying new ideas without being criticized or penalized. Thomas will show how successful companies like Google, Sparkfun, and others, are using play and collaboration to grow and maintain the leading edge in their industries. Yes, play!

    Rather than something frivolous or time wasting, play is actually a crucial tool for unlocking creativity and for engaging employees. Thomas will show how the four elements of play – joy, whimsy, engaging new people, and surprise! – lead to new ideas, innovations, and partnerships.

    While “play at work” may seem like a contradiction, this talk will show that allowing employees the freedom to explore new ideas and interactions, without exacting precise boundaries on timelines and outcomes, will lead to a more innovative and nimble organization. Thomas will explore compelling case studies from a variety of organizations and corporations with the newest research on organizational productivity and retention.

    New ideas and paradigms require novel ways of approaching systems and they way we approach problem-solving. Innovative problem solving is unlikely to happen if project teams and management do not vary their work environment and stimuli. Play gives us a way to do this. This isn’t simply about painting the walls a new color and adding beanbag chairs. This talk will focus on cultivating playful behaviors and patterns, not by simply making an office “seem playful,” but by looking at ways to actually change behaviors for the long-term through shifting corporate culture.

    Thomas will also explore how to energize and motivate teams through collaboration and encourage curiosity and innovation. She will teach specific high-tech and low-tech ways to spur new ideas, concepts, and partnerships. Thomas will illustrate this from her own experiences collaborating with a diverse group of global brands; world famous artists, musicians and dancers; star chefs; and even preschoolers! Through these examples, she will emphasize the importance of learning to look at problems from a variety of different viewpoints.

    As part of this talk, “surprise” will be shown to be an important element of creativity. So Thomas will work with the event organizer to add a customized surprise to her talk. In past talks this has involved anything from live demos of new technology designed in her lab, exploding musical pastry, or an interactive audience challenge.

    Participants will learn how to:

    • Encourage creativity within their organization.
    • Create space for play in their day-to-day work.
    • Reframe the concept of “play” from a frivolous diversion to a critical tool in synthesizing disparate concepts and ideas.
    • Utilize collaboration as a tool for developing new perspectives, increasing productivity and a positive team environment.

    The Maker Mindset and Entrepreneurial Thinking

    This current talk by Professor Thomas is an entertaining, compelling learning experience for forward-looking, innovative companies and associations. This talk can also be customized as the perfect message for university student groups.

    Where do new ideas come from? How can you bring your concepts to life? What methods can help you solve new challenges? This talk looks at these questions from the lens of Making, and the modern Maker movement. The presentation will start by introducing the concept of Makers- those who create rather than just consume. The Maker Movement is a global phenomenon: In 2016, over 1 million people attended maker faires held around the world. But what is the Maker Movement? And how can thinking like a Maker help your team find opportunities to create new value, innovative thinking and positive change?

    Thomas is an Engineering and Business professor who has worked with organizations around the country on topics related to Making and creativity. In this talk she shows her audience the power of a Maker mindset, why companies such as Google have opened makerspaces in their offices and why even public libraries are offering maker gatherings and equipment like shared sewing and 3D printing stations.

    For example, what does it really mean to “share” information? How can adopting an “open source” attitude and policy help organizations become more productive and competitive?

    Professor Thomas has interviewed dozens of adult Makers – ranging from top designers, industry leaders, and world-renown scientists – and uses these stories to show you how to harness the invaluable assets of the Maker Mindset:

    • Makers are curious. They are explorers. They pursue projects that others might not have thought to delve into.

    • Makers are playful. They often work on projects that show a sense of whimsy.

    • Makers are willing to take on risk. They aren’t afraid to try things that haven’t been done before.

    • Makers take on responsibility. They enjoy taking on projects that can help others and contribute to the team.

    • Makers are persistent. They don’t give up easily.

    • Makers are resourceful. They look for materials and inspiration in unlikely places.

    • Makers share and are open—their knowledge, their tools, and their support.

    • Makers are optimistic and have a positive effect on those around them. They believe that they can make a difference in the world.

    Thomas will explore the common threads between Makers from diverse backgrounds, and discuss how anyone – from entrepreneurs and C-Level Executives to association members and university students – can benefit from thinking and acting like a Maker. More importantly, Thomas will provide specific, tangible ways to adopt and implement these attributes that will lead to exciting new projects and collaborations, while encouraging positive teamwork, proactive exploration and curiosity.

    Thomas will convince your audience that they *are* all makers and the benefits of seeing the world this way. It is an empowering message that will challenge listeners to get started tackling new opportunities and solving current problems to create new value and ventures. Your team will truly understand that problems really are just opportunities in disguise!

    An interactive option that Thomas can include in this talk is having the audience fill out their own version of a “maker mindset” with a “to do” list to start their personal journey. Audiences gain exclusive insights that they can put into action.

    Professor Thomas has given customized versions of this popular, inspiring talk to audiences as varied as Google, Disney, the National Library Information Technology Association’s annual meeting, and numerous schools (from K-12 to MIT).

    Additional Talk Titles

    Youth and Education Groups: Making Makers
    Dr. AnnMarie Thomas 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.

    Thomas talks about the work of the Maker Education Initiative, focusing on developing the people, places and practices to allow more children the opportunity to be makers.

    Thomas and her team demonstrate that science or engineering lessons can be found in almost anything – and a sense of play can make those lessons accessible and incite young minds.

    Playing with, and for Data: Lessons in Data Across Creative Fields

    Unusual collaborations can often lead to new ways of taking and analyzing data. This talk looks at lessons learned from working with chefs, circus performers, and preschoolers.

    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 on Speaking

    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. Exclusive Interview with AnnMarie Thomas
    Creativity Speaker Dr. AnnMarie Thomas Inspires Innovators to Play
    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. Read the Full Interview
  • "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."
    - AnnMarie Thomas

    What People are Saying about Seeing AnnMarie Speak

    Rating Entries

    Dr. AnnMarie Thomas delivered the closing keynote for our women's leadership conference - Aspire to Lead. She was dynamic, authentic and inspiring. Here is just what a few of our attendees had to say:
    "AnnMarie Thomas' enthusiasm and energy was infectious."
    "I loved the AnnMarie. She was adorably quirky, off the charts intelligent, and caring. "
    "Anne-Marie Thomas was so unexpectedly BRILLIANT! I was completely inspired by her ingenuity and bold creativity even after being discouraged in so many ways."
    As a conference organizer, what more could you ask for?


    Dr. Thomas is an inspiring speaker! I saw her presentation at TedxUCLA and the entire audience was blown away by her friendly style, impressive content and she even brought Damian Kulash from the band OK GO on stage with her for an entertaining and endearing Q&A session.


    Note: Professor AnnMarie Thomas is one of the few speakers we at have worked with over the past few years that has consistently received 7 out of 7 marks from every client that has booked her.

    “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

    “AnnMarie was an absolute pleasure to have as part of our conference – not only was her talk engaging, relevant, and entertaining, she herself was full of enthusiasm and positivity on and off stage. She stayed the entire day as a participant, which was awesome!”
    Windward School

    “AnnMarie was engaging, thoughtful, and thoroughly delightful. It’s difficult to find a keynote that can speak to a wide audience and she fit the bill. The evaluations bear that out. She was the highest rated keynote we’ve had. Not one negative word against her. She has earned the highest marks from attendees of any keynote for the conference to date! ”
    STEAM Conference

    “AnnMarie’s talk was very well-received and she was a pleasure to work with. She did a great job customizing her content to fit our audience and went above and beyond to incorporate the language that we use internally about our culture, etc, to ensure that the topics resonated.”
    Two Sigma

    “AnnMarie was fantastic. She is very energetic and really help to energize our RD&E team to imagine a brave new world and spark creative and innovative solutions.
    Her enthusiasm and excitement for teaching engineering and science from a non-traditional focus truly is extraordinary. Her diversity of experiences and enthusiasm will help STEM students to create students who will help transform the world to be a better place. She delights in playful learning and helped the adults listening to open up to that voice. Thank you, AnnMarie!”
    Nalco Water/Ecolab

    “I loved Dr. AnnMarie Thomas! She was so fun and inspiring. I could have listened to her talk all day! I was inspired by Dr. Thomas and her four goals: Joy, Whimsy, New People/Playmates, and Surprise.”

    I would like to incorporate several of her core ideas into my teaching. One of these ideas is that ‘Walls are fictitious boundaries.’ “

    “The highlight of the conference was Dr. Thomas. I found her to be engaging, her presentation was well organized and delivered. Everything she does is so inspiring, challenging, and a one of a kind experience. I also enjoyed hearing about her bringing in pre-kindergarten students to help her college kids. These experiences are so true to life. Four-year-olds will totally play, ask questions and explore without abandon. They are great tools for learning.”

    STEAM Conference Participant Comments

    “One of the fun things about collaborating with AnnMarie, such as when I asked her to speak at our TEDxUCLA event, is that I do not need to know – and enjoy not knowing – what she will do. Her deep commitment to draw in and engage learning through unexpected paths, often through joyful experiences, coupled with her own curiosities, humility, and rejection of the easy fills any room she is in with electricity. She is truly one of the rare ones.”
    Scott Hutchinson
    Lead Organizer, TEDxUCLA

    “Everything went wonderfully! Professor Thomas gave a wonderful speech, was very easy to work with, and inspired a lot of people in our community.”
    The Hun School of Princeton

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    Books by AnnMarie Thomas:

    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.

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