Can a Kids' Toy Bring More Women Into Engineering?

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Meet GoldieBlox, the lady engineer who hopes to unseat the princesses from their toy-store thrones 

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Susan Burdick/GoldieBlox

Bob the Builder. Jimmy Neutron. Lego Man. Sid the Science Kid. Handy Manny.

The science-loving, tower-building cartoon heroes popular among kids today are all boys, or -- I suppose, in the case of Lego Man -- men.

Incidentally, so are about 90 percent of America's engineers (pdf).

San Francisco-based entrepreneur Debbie Sterling wants to change that statistic. Sterling was trained as an engineer at Stanford, where she was one of 181 women in a program that graduated nearly 700 people in all. To even out the score, she decided to begin with an early intervention in a girl's life, and she set her sights on the toy aisle. Girls, she says, begin demonstrating less interest in science, math, and engineering when they are as young as eight. "Take a walk through a toy store and you can begin to see why; the 'blue aisle' is filled with construction toys and chemistry sets, while the 'pink aisle' is filled with princesses and dolls," read the press materials from her company. "If we want more female engineers, we need to open their minds to engineering at a young age."

How could a toy engage girls in engineering? What would make it different from the "standard" (read: geared-toward-boys) Lego and Erector sets? Sterling spent more than a year researching these questions and, gradually, GoldieBlox -- a female engineer character, Goldie, and a related construction toy -- emerged. It hit Kickstarter this morning as Sterling seeks to raise $150,000 for a first round of production.

At the center of Sterling's creation are several strategies for getting girls to build: engage them with a story, challenge them to build with a problem-solving purpose, use materials that are warm or soft to the touch (no metal) and have shapes with curved edges, and presented in colors that American girls in the year 2012 tend to be attracted to. The toy set includes the story of its heroine, "GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine" (available as a book or iOS app), five character figurines (Goldie's "friends"), and building kit that includes plastic elements and a ribbon.

The premise is that as Goldie's story unfolds, she builds different devices that help her accomplish certain tasks. Every time the "build" icon appears, girls following along have to build along with her in order for the story to continue. For example, in the book's first story, Goldie needs to build a spinning machine for her dog. "There's just this moment of excitement for a girl when they wrap this ribbon around this wheel and they pull it and it spins," Sterling says. "It's such a basic engineering principle of a wheel spinning on an axle, but it is this magical moment for every girl I have tested."

Since most girls are used to playing with static toys, Sterling points out, the simple act of creating motion can prove to be exciting for them.  

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As the book progresses, the building projects get more complex, and the girls have to create contraptions that can spin more and more of the story's characters. Sterling recalled, "I kept hearing the same thing over and over again: Girls saying 'I want to spin all the animals! I want to spin all the animals!' They get really into it. Rather than just tossing the construction element aside and just play-acting with the characters (which is what I thought might happen), they really wanted to build."

Part of Sterling's hope is that by getting girls to build for Goldie, they'll come to see building and design as something that can have their own social value. "Girls really want to help people and they care about nurturing," she says. "When you think about how back in the day, most doctors were male. As women began to gain more power, guess who starts to become doctors? Women. Because they love nurturing and caring about people -- it was an obvious step. I think the same thing will happen with engineering, once we learn what engineering really is and we get beyond the stereotype of a nerdy man sitting alone in a cubicle at a computer. Engineers are solving some of the world's biggest problems and helping people."

Sterling's basic conceit -- that by playing to girls' inclination to help and imbuing their designs with practical purpose she can get them designing and building -- is echoed in the work of Christine Cunningham, a vice president of the Museum of Science in Boston and director of the Engineering is Elementary program. Like Sterling, Cunningham has found that if you embed an engineering dilemma in a story, girls will have more interest in figuring out the challenge. For example, she says, kids' kits for electrical engineering, which is one of the most heavily male of the different kinds of engineering, tend to ask kids to build circuits to make a light turn on or a fan blow air. When Cunningham set about to redesign an electrical-engineering activity with girls in mind, she and her team embedded it in a story about a girl living on a ranch who needs to keep a trough filled with water for the baby lambs. The character decides to build herself an alarm as a reminder. That gives girls a purpose, and they'll "engage in the same tasks and have the same sort of outcomes, because they're linking it back to the safety of the baby lambs," Cunningham told me.

Does it somehow undermine the goals of gender equality and girls' empowerment to engage them in engineering by buying into and relying on so many stereotypes about girls in the first place? Cunningham says we need to keep in mind, by the time they've reached the age of five (the youngest age GoldieBlox is recommended for), many girls will already have well developed gender identities, and oftentimes that identity will be quite, for lack of a better word, girly. "How can we take the places that girls are and develop the same kinds of innovative problem-solving skills? ... We're very much based in, 'what is the reality of the now?' And how do you work with that? Are there small ways you can push the meter to bring in these kinds of skills?" 

Sterling reiterated this same idea to me: You have to meet girls where they are. 

And the advantages of engaging girls in engineering through play go beyond the spatial skills they will develop, or even the fun they will have: A children's toy is meaningful as a symbol of what parents value. Children have toys not because they have purchased them but because they have received them as gifts from their parents or other adults. That transaction sends important signals to young girls and boys about who their parents want them to be. As sociologist Barry Schwartz wrote in his seminal 1967 essay "The Social Psychology of the Gift" (pdf), "Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others have us in their minds are transmitted. ... The function of' 'masculine" and 'feminine' gifts relative to sexual identification is clear enough. By the giving of different types of 'masculine' gifts, for example, the mother and father express their image of the child as 'a little soldier' or 'a little chemist or engineer.' " In putting a girls' engineering toy on store shelves, Sterling is giving parents the opportunity to send the message to their daughters that they are "little engineers" too, and they don't have to be any less girly to be excited about building and design.

When we think about what a world would look like that brought men and women equally into the engineering fold, we have to reimagine many aspects of society: toy aisles, classrooms, work environments, etc. That is all to say, we have to build a culture that is radically different than the one we have. There are a million buttons we'll need to press in order to get there. Sterling is pushing on just one of them, but she's doing so with all her might.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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