Merging Tech and Play: Master's Student Pursues Toy-Making at IYA

A woman and child play together

It’s all fun and games for toymaker Jennifer Ellis. A mother, founder and graduate student, Ellis has a passion for designing products that teach STEM to younger, underrepresented audiences all while earning her master’s degree from the USC Iovine and Young Academy. So how does she do it all?

“As always, I’m trying to find the balance between work and play,” says Ellis, whose first serious foray into toy-making was motivated by playing with her daughter.

“As a mother, I had a hard time finding age and stage appropriate computer science learning products for my daughter,” says Ellis. “I began to see more pain points and took the initiative to build what was missing.” 

In 2014, Ellis launched Giggle Chips - ABC Computer Science Cards, which educates children on STEM terminology in the form of a playful game. Ellis initiated a Kickstarter campaign to fund its production and within a few months the project took off, landing Ellis and her daughter on ABC’s toy-competition show, The Toy Box.

“It was surreal,” says Ellis. “Being on the set with other inventors motivated me to continue toy-making because I learned how fun, creative and lucrative this industry is.”

"Giggle Chips: ABC Computer Science Game Cards"
A man presents something off camera to a woman and young girl

The experience proved to be a turning point for Ellis, who is now developing a master’s thesis based around a tabletop game she calls Chiquitos - Little Ones.

“Play should be an evolving experience,” explains Ellis, whose toy-making mission has broadened to not only educate but also convey a sense of heritage.

Chiquitos – Little Ones teaches computer science to children ages 4 - 8, and is infused with Latinx stories and cultural symbolism. Ellis hopes the game connects with an audience that hasn’t ordinarily had access to STEM-related educational tools. “I’m also super excited about this project because I am building one of the games based on my mom’s mole recipe,” she says.

Ellis’ toy-making endeavors have also drawn the attention of tech heavy hitters. Most recently, Ellis was accepted into the Google Women Techmakers Scholarship program, which aims to create gender equality in the tech industry by encouraging women to excel as leaders in the field. The scholarship provides Ellis $10,000 in tuition support while connecting her to a network of hundreds of like-minded entrepreneurial women. This year Ellis was also accepted as a mentee at the Ruth Handler Mentorship program for Women in Toys, Licensing and Entertainment sponsored by Mattel, Inc.

As a candidate in the Master of Science in Integrated Design, Business and Technology (MSIDBT) program, Ellis’ courses helped her brainstorm ways to get children involved in coding and tech.

“My directed research courses focused on expanding equitable opportunities in computer science for underrepresented communities,” says Ellis. “This is when all the data started to come together for me.”

Ellis credits the Academy for giving her strategies to synthesize ideas into tangible products and the resources to hone her unique calling.

“The Academy empowered me to dig deeper, ask big questions and to fully embrace blue sky thinking,” says Ellis.

Ellis has also been spending a lot of time with her test subjects – aka her kids and family, as the pandemic keeps them home. “I pretty much have spent every evening safely quarantining at my mother’s yard visiting my family,” says Ellis. “We’ve had the opportunity to watch many sunsets together and reflect on what we are grateful for.”

In an effort to help other USC students find their own paths into the toy and game industry, Ellis has teamed up with fellow Academy students Alyssa Goldberg and Sydney Loew to co-found a USC club for toy-making enthusiasts.

“Through my inventor’s journey of building toys and games, I realized the difficulty of getting started in the industry,” says Ellis. “The goal of our organization is to provide inventors a framework for bringing their ideas to life and to a community of Trojan friends.”

Students interested in applying to the organization can complete a student interest form here.