Rice student covers dorm room floor with 13,000 plastic balls

When U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials learned that Rice University senior David Nichol had imported 26 fairly large boxes containing 13,000 plastic colored balls from China, they decided to investigate the contents due to the sheer bizarreness of the order.

“There are a lot of things about importing I didn’t know that I do now – about how you need to fill out certain forms and how you need to pick them up from (the Houston) ship channel,” Nichol said.

“I actually didn’t pick them up from the Port of Houston,” he said. “They were taken to (U.S.) Customs and Border Protection to be tested to make sure they were certified balls and not something else. I’m sure it was kind of sketchy to have 13,000 plastic balls shipped to Texas.”

Nichol’s excuse was pretty straightforward: He wanted to create a ball pit in his dorm room at Rice.

It wasn’t a childhood dream, nor does he have any vivid memory of ever being in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

What did inspire the college student with a limited budget to spend $500 on balls was an “xkcd” webcomic by former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe. Munroe, who has created a cult following for the comic, given a TED talk and appeared in numerous news media, including the now-shuttered “Colbert Report,” appealed to Nichol through his 2006 strip “Grownups.”

In the wiki description for “Grownups,” Megan, a la Nichol, has taken these thoughts about adulthood seriously and realizes that with her newfound freedom as a grownup, she gets to define what her adulthood means. And Nichol agreed.

“When you have a good idea, you should just go for it, and you shouldn’t really worry about what’s going to happen until afterward,” Nichol said.

His family and friends didn’t really take his idea seriously at first but were supportive.

“I think most people thought I was joking when I told them about it at first,” he said. “My family thought I was crazy, but they also know me. They didn’t say, ‘No, you can’t do this’ or ‘Don’t waste your time doing this.'”

To make room for the balls, Nichol had to move his desk, a dresser and other items into a common space that he shares with his three roommates. He does have two drawers left in the room to keep some essential clothing, but the room primarily serves as a place to sleep, read and to relax with friends in the ball pit, where a kid’s basketball hoop is set up in the corner and new mini basketball games are created weekly.

Photo courtesy Tommy LaVergne/Rice University

Nichol will graduate from Rice in May with a computer science degree, so it begs the question: What is going to happen to the balls piled more than 2 feet deep on the floor?

“We’ll see. I think when you have an idea you should just go for it. You shouldn’t worry about what’s going to happen next or what’s going to happen after that. If you’re going to keep doing that, you’re never going to be able to do cool things like have a ball pit room. Which is my way of saying I don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Nichol said.

“This is one thing. I really hope this isn’t how I’m totally remembered at Rice. I hope it’s for other things too, like when I was talking with classmates or telling them a joke, because this is one thing and not all of who I am. It might be a symbol of what I liked doing in my spare time, but it’s not the whole of my Rice experience.”



About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.