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A female engineer creates girls toys with stories and science to attract more girls to engineering and math. Writer Elizabeth Nelson tells us how she did it.
Text: Elizabeth Nelson
Country: USA

little girl dressed as a pink ballerina sits in front of a skateboard with a sad look on her face. She picks up a hammer and we imagine she is about to break something. In fact, she is inventing. The sad look is actually one of determination as she is using tools not traditionally associated with little girls, to build and create something. Our pink ballerina then joins a riot of little girls who race down the girl’s toy aisle of a shopping mall, roaring. They stop at the end of the aisle and stare at the camera. They all look determined and expectant. “Disrupting the pink aisle… with toys for future engineers,” announces the video. The toy being introduced isn’t just another pink Barbie or princess dress: it is something completely new, a promise of something big.

The product is Goldie Blox, the brainchild of engineer Debbie Sterling. Conscious of the disturbing lack of women in her engineering program at Stanford and in the wider workforce, Sterling wondered what she could do to shift the paradigm. Sterling herself only discovered engineering after a conversation with her maths teacher during her senior year of high school. Realising that every potential engineer may not be lucky enough to be steered in the right direction, Sterling wanted to introduce engineering and building to young girls.

She asked herself what attracts boys to engineering, math and science? And why is engineering such a male-centred environment, with women making up only 11% of total engineers worldwide?

Sterling researched theories of play and the idea that we are taught to think in certain ways through how we interact with the world at a young age. “You can see how conventional toys have catered to traditional ideas of how girls and boys ought to play just by walking down the toy aisle,” Sterling says on her video on Kickstarter, the start-up platform.

While the boys aisle is full of toys based on building and structure with Legos, cars and trains, the girls section, or “pink aisle” is full of dolls, cooking paraphernalia, dress-up costumes, and storybooks, in general, toys that help foster creativity and imagination, rather than a functional, problem solving. Sterling isn’t trying to take away from the imaginary and creative toys that are available to girls (she readily admits enjoying playing with dolls when she was growing up), but she wants to give girls the opportunity to delve into the real, hands-on structural side of play.

Are pink toys enough?

Lego released pink versions of their traditional sets in 2008 to capitalise on the female market, but Sterling argued that simply making toys pink wasn’t enough. She spent a year and her life-savings working with Cornell University researchers, talking with the founders of successful board games including Pictionary, Cranium and Klutz Books, and the head of IDEO, researching gender differences and child development. According to Sterling’s website, her “aha” moment was realizing that: “Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.”

Then, she designed GoldieBlox to marry these two interests. “Goldie Blox is the best of both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren’t just interested in ‘what’ they’re building … they want to know ‘why’. Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives. The machines Goldie builds solve problems and help her friends. As girls read along, they want to be like Goldie and do what she does,” Sterling wrote on her Kickstarter page.

How does the toy work?

GoldieBlox has two sets:

- GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine where Goldie builds a spinning machine to help her dog, Nacho, chase his tail. Soon all her friends want in on the action. Help Goldie build a belt drive machine to spin everybody! The game comes with a book series plus construction set starring Goldie, the girl inventor.

- GoldieBlox and the Parade Float where Goldie’s friends Ruby and Katinka compete in a princess pageant with the hopes of riding in the town parade. When Katinka loses the crown, Goldie and Ruby team up to build her a parade float as well as other fun rolling, spinning, and whirling designs. The game comes with a book series plus construction set introducing Ruby, Goldie’s best friend and princess-turned-engineer.

GoldieBlox, has grown faster than Sterling and her team could have predicted. On their Facebook and Twitter pages, they continue to engage with their customers, offering them information not only on the product, but also sharing interesting links about female scientists and powerful, strong women characters. They continue to spread their mantra of “More Than Just A Princess” and to inspire the next generation of engineers.

Goldie’s numbers

After creating a prototype of the product, Sterling launched Goldie Blox on Kickstarter on the 18th of September 2012. She aimed to raise $150,000 so that the toys could go into production. The very next day, she had reached the halfway mark, and two days later, reached the goal. Kickstarter gives each project 30 days’ worth of fundraising, and by the 30-day mark, she had raised $285,881 from more than 5,000 backers from all over the world. She has been featured in high-profile publications including Time, The Boston Globe and The Guardian. Then, two weeks after Kickstarter ended, the toys went viral! With over a million views, overnight orders were flying in, with pre-orders for more than 20,000 toys. With only two people running the business at the time, Sterling called in her family to help, adding her sister to the team. With the successful start-up, they introduced another book and puzzle to the set. They continue to do well and have recently signed on with Toys ’R’ Us.



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Not just a princess .

Debbie Sterling, an engineer from Stanford, was tired of all the pink toys for girls and upset about the lack of women engineers; so she decided to invent a new toy.

She did some research and learned that boys have stronger spatial skills, so they prefer construction toys, while girls have better verbal skills, so they prefer creative toys that involve reading, stories, and characters. She decided to combine both sets of skills into a toy that girls would like. And so she invented Goldieblox, a toy that combines both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren’t just interested in ‘what’ they are building, they also want to know ‘why’. Goldieblox currently has two sets available, one about a Spinning Machine and one about a Parade Float.

The company grew so quickly that Debbie had to hire her sister to help out. The toys are quickly becoming very popular with girls and their parents in the US and they hope to have new sets out soon.

 

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