Thursday, November 15, 2012

"More than Just a Princess" - GoldieBlox

We hear all the time that women are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics), with the solution usually being proposed that education and encouragement needs to happen for girls when they are young.  But just how do we make that happen?

A new startup called GoldieBlox will soon be manufacturing a toy specifically designed for young girls to teach them concepts related to engineering.  Founder Debbie Sterling raised nearly double the funding goal she set on Kickstarter, from over 5500 donors giving on average $51.  She spent a year researching the way girls play and how they would best engage with an engineering tool, discovering that girls enjoy reading much more than boys do.  By combining reading with building, Sterling has provided an enticing new way for girls to engage with engineering concepts very early on.

There is clearly a need for more STEM-inspired toys that appeal to girls.  Without getting into the whole ultra-gendered nature of kids toys and whether that's good or bad, I think we can all agree that if you walk into a toy store, there are clearly "boy" toys and "girl" toys.  Some brands, like Lego, have tried to get around this issue with gender-neutral advertising - there's a great piece on the Sociological Images blog about this campaign and why it failed.  We can learn from marketing efforts like the Bic for Her fiasco, that simply making a pink version of something is not going to cut the mustard.

And that's what I like about GoldieBlox.  It's designed from observing how girls and boys differ in how they play (whether we socialize it into them is another whole issue).  And it specifically targets those differences to get girls more interested in engineering concepts.  It doesn't just focus on making something "pretty" or smell nice or whatever it is that girls are supposed to aspire to with most of their other toys.  It looks much deeper at how girls like to play, and how that enthusiasm doesn't have to be limited to dolls playing house.

I'll end this post with a personal note about why it's so important for girls to learn about engineering at an early age.  When I was a junior in high school, I received an award from the Society of Women Engineers because I excelled at math and science.  And I and NO IDEA what an engineer was, and no idea what that meant for my own career.  And all I learned about the Society of Women Engineers is that they give high school girls awards and then never contact them again.  But maybe they've changed in the last decade.  Anyway, it did get me to look up what engineering was, and I did apply to (and was accepted to) a top engineering program for college (though opted for a traditional liberal arts college instead).  But clearly there this is not an efficient way to get girls into STEM.

There's much more work that needs to be done to encourage girls and young women to go into STEM fields, and I have personally felt this need.  We need more entrepreneurs like Debbie Sterling to develop thoughtful approaches to encouraging girls to engage in fun STEM activities.  I wish her all the best in developing her line of engineering toys that engage girls.

What do you think of STEM toys targeted at young girls?  I'd love to hear your feedback!