If you haven't noticed, most engineers are of the male persuasion.
That fact might have something to do with the toys they once played with—take a ramble down aisles of your local toy store and you may notice that the Erector Sets, the Snap Circuits, and the K'nex are pretty much targeted to boys. When a proto-engineering toy manufacturer does try to market to girls, they usually just throw in a princess or make the parts pink.
Debra Sterling has had enough of that.
Debbie Sterling's engineering toy incorporates what she's found girls are naturally good at.
A product designer and mechanical engineer not long out of Stanford, Sterling was "always bothered by how few women there were in my program." Bothered, but not perplexed. Stereotypes and social pressures, it was clear to her, had done their part to steer women away from engineering. When a math teacher suggested a career in engineering, Sterling "thought she was crazy. I thought it was for boys and nerdy girls."
Once in college, she took "Mechanical Engineering 101" on a whim, and was hooked. "I wished as a little girl I had known that engineering was fun, that there had been a toy to do for me what Legos and Erector Sets have done for boys for many years."
Sterling began investigating the reasons that boys and girls play differently. She wound up convinced that the differences were neurological. "It's pretty simple: boys have strong spatial skills," says Sterling. "But girls can learn them if they practice." The stronger nurturing and social skills that little girls possess was not something to be ignored, or learned away, but incorporated and maximized. "If you read about the brain, you find that women have an incredibly strong sense of empathy, so we can really understand what people's needs are," says Sterling. "An engineer with a strong sense of empathy can design things to suit people's needs."
Goldiblox has garnered more than $180,000 in support. Image: Goldiblox
To exercise the spatial skills and work in a girl's natural empathy and attraction to role-playing, Sterling came up with Goldiblox. It's a story with parts. Goldie is the "cool girl that all girls want to be," though she wears overalls and mismatched socks. She has a dog named Nacho, who likes to chase his tail, so she decides to build a machine to do the spinning for him. She takes apart her ballerina music box and discovers that the figurine spins on a wheel with an axel. Newfound information in hand, she builds her own and successfully spins the pup. Subsequently, she finds a way to spin the rest of her friends as well: a cat, a bear, a sloth, and the ballerina; making, in essence, a belt drive. "They're building a machine, not for the sake of building something cool, but because it helps her friends," she says.
Source: ASME Survey
The toy comes with a pegboard, axles, blocks, ribbons, spindle-like wheels, washers, a crank, figurines of the characters, and a pink ribbon. Sterling wrote and illustrated the book herself. The readers are meant to reproduce Goldie's constructions every step of the way. Sterling quit her job with a jewelry manufacturer to develop the idea and create a prototype. It helped that the jewelry company's director of production, who had worked in the toy industry for 30 years, promised to set her up with a manufacturer in China.
Sterling ran into her own engineering problems while perfecting the toy. In an effort to give everything round corners and a pleasant feel, she used foam as a material for the pegboard. Unfortunately, it created a significant amount of friction with the wheels, requiring more force than a five-year-old might have when pulling the ribbon. After a brainstorming session with engineering friends, she decided to add a washer. "It seems so obvious now, but it took us months to figure out," she recalls.
Initially, Sterling used the same design as off-the-shelf pegboards, with the holes lined up in rows and columns. But that meant that the final shape the figures were meant to spin in, a star, would be asymmetrical. It drove the girls crazy. Sterling redesigned the pegboard so that the holes would be offset every other row or column, allowing children to make a more perfect star.
Once she had a prototype in hand, Sterling tested the toy with 40 different families and learned as much about the differences in how boys and girls play as she had from her previous research. Girls, for instance, would carefully follow the story and execute each project exactly as indicated. Boys had another approach. "They would pick it up, ignore the story, and try to build a robot."
Including extra parts had once been considered, so that readers could play creatively once they'd completed the various set-ups. But Sterling found that they only annoyed the girls "They were like, 'Why is there an extra wheel? Where's it supposed to go?'" Girls had a greater tendency to quit if they didn't get things right the first time, so Sterling added tips and encouragement not to give up throughout the book.
Sterling herself has been given all the encouragement she needs. This September she launched a Kickstarter campaign. Within ten days she'd received more than $180,000 in pledges. Production has begun, sequels are in the making.
And maybe a few female engineers, too.
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
I wished as a little girl I had known that engineering was fun, that there had been a toy to do for me what Legos and Erector Sets have done for boys for many years.
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