The Mighty Steam Engine, Yvonne Ng ’91’s recently published children’s book, introduces young readers and their parents to reverse engineering as she explains in lively, fun rhymes how the parts of the steam engine work together to propel the train down the track.
Courtesy Yvonne Ng

One day when Yvonne Ng ’91’s toddler was in his “switch phase,” she held him at the top of the stairs so he could turn the light on and off, again and again. While he was “happy as a clam,” Ng was “getting exhausted,” she says. But the experience sparked the idea for a toy.  

Ng, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton, made a prototype with Mega Bloks, drilling holes and inserting LED lights and switches to create a light that could be turned on. She expanded the design to include additional tops — a fan and siren — that a child could connect to the base. Her Start-Up Circuits toy has a red strip running around it to show that an electrical circuit is a circle, and if you break the circle (the red strip), the light won’t go on.

At the time Ng was designing the toy, she had been doing education consulting through her Engineer’s Playground and helping her husband’s engineering product design company, but the engineer in her missed producing something tangible. “I had been feeling a bit frustrated that I hadn’t been making anything,” she says. Ng found an outlet in designing toys and writing children’s books that build on her desire to nurture the natural scientist and engineer in youngsters — and everyone.

Published in August, her first children’s book, The Mighty Steam Engine, has a woman train engineer on the cover. It walks young readers and their parents through the parts of the steam engine — from the big wheels and crank pin to the boiler — explaining in fun rhymes how they work together with the train engineer and fireman to propel the train down the track.

After beginning her career as a control automation engineer, she eventually moved into education and teaching teachers. At St. Catherine University in Minnesota, whose undergraduates are all women, she taught computer science, and to education majors she taught engineering, physics, and technology. Ng also consulted with schools to help them incorporate engineering into the curriculum and integrate STEM into other subjects. Today she works in information technology at a wealth management company in Minnesota. 

Ng started Engineer’s Playground in 2009 as a blog for K-12 STEM teachers and parents. It has evolved into the platform for her STEM-related toys, books, and more.

Her next children’s book, They’re Tearing Up Mulberry Street, about road construction, is due out in 2020. It introduces youngsters to engineering design concepts and terminology related to road construction. Code Hopper, her game for three to five year olds, aims to develop algorithmic thinking, an essential skill for computer programming, as they move around on foam mat pieces.

Ng’s books and toys “have a lot of discovery and wonder in them, which I think is a great message for young kids to get about what lies ahead if they think about STEM,” says Jennifer Rexford ’91, chair of Princeton’s computer science department and Ng’s Princeton roommate.

It’s important, says Ng, to nurture potential particularly in girls and women and individuals from underrepresented groups who have the talent and interest to become engineers but might not know much about the field or weren’t encouraged. “We have so much potential and so many people have been either silenced or have self-silenced their skills and talents,” she says. Ng wants to “remove those barriers.”