When Debbie Sterling graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree, she was the only woman in a class of 181 students. She then entered a field where women account for only 11% of its population. Always bothered by that, the young engineer decided to do something about it. And that something was “GoldieBlox,” an engineering-based toy geared at getting girls interested in science.
In a particularly moving video that recently went viral, Sterling says she was never encouraged as a child to pursue anything other than traditionally feminine roles. In fact, she didn’t even know what engineering was until her senior year in high school. But after graduating from Stanford, she decided her purpose on earth was to get girls interested in science, and so she invented GoldieBlox, the toy she wished she had been given as a child.
What is it? GoldieBlox is a toy set that includes a pegboard, axles, cranks, wheels and washers, which are joined by an accompanying book series starring “Goldie, the kid inventor who loves to build.” As girls read along, they get to build whatever Goldie builds along with her ragtag group of colorful friends. In the first story, they build a “belt drive,” which Sterling cleverly names a “Spinning Machine.” Later in the series, they erect a pulley elevator, design a vehicle, and so on.
It may sound like a simple idea, but it’s actually radically different from any building-based toys available. After taking a look at what was out there, Sterling quickly discovered when toys like LEGOS or Lincoln Logs try to sell to girls, they generally just paint the sets pink and call it a day. But as Sterling says, “Yeah it’s true, girls do like pink, but there’s a lot more to us than that.”
In fact, having spent a year researching how girls learn and what appeals most to them, she found the differences in children can be boiled down very simply and they have nothing to do with color choices. Instead she found that boys like to build, girls like to read.
And that’s why GoldieBlox isn’t just an erector set, but a set with accompanying books, because for girls the narrative is what first engages them and gets them hooked, and then while that’s happening, they learn to love building.
So far, it’s been a radically successful endeavor. After Sterling’s video went viral, the attention spurred her Kickstarter fund to top $285,000 in five days, taking her creation from dream to prototype to production. In the interim, she’s racked up some pretty impressive media exposure through outlets like Forbes, FastCompany and TIME.
Sterling isn’t alone in her quest to make science more accessible to girls. Jennifer Kessler, Alice Brooks, and Bettina Chen (also Stanford engineering alums) were so disappointed that there weren’t more women in classes with them, they too created a toy (and a quickly-funded Kickstarter campaign) called “Roominate,” a buildable dollhouse with a customizable infrastructure and wiring capability. And for girls in their teens, nonprofits like “Girls Who Code” are establishing free summer programs to teach them marketable computer science skills.
Why the push? Why not just let girls keep playing with pink nailpolish and Barbie if that’s what they’re drawn to? Because they’re not only drawn to those things―it’s that they’re offered almost nothing else outside of those traditional toys during the time they’re establishing their core interests. And when we normalize ideals like, “Science is for boys” other facts, like “Girls are very spatial and naturally geared for engineering” go unnoticed, even disbelieved.
But obviously the most important reason behind encouraging girlsto pursue science is their future. Just as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained to Abby Cadabby on a recent episode of Sesame Street, “’Princess’ is not a career.” And though there is nothing inherently wrong with a little girl wanting to be a princess, there is everything wrong when she believes that’s all she can be.
What else can we do to encourage young women to participate in science-related careers? Let us know in the Comments.
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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer. In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a web editor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com