From Barbie to BuilderSeptember 10, 2012
For many young girls, the perfect holiday or birthday gift is a Barbie doll. But Alice Brooks was inspired by a different toy when she was a child — a toy that led her down a unique path. When Brooks, a 24-year-old graduate student at Stanford University, was a little girl, she asked her father for a Barbie. Instead, he gave her a saw, which she used to dismantle her dollhouse. That experience inspired her to create a toy to encourage girls to love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Excited and intrigued by the memory of dismantling a dollhouse to see its inner workings, Brooks joined forces with two other classmates, Bettina Chen and Jennifer Kessler, to form Maykah Inc. to bring exposure to STEM through toys that inspire change. The students believe that the absence of women in STEM begins in childhood.
According to AAUW’s research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, parents and educators can have a huge influence on the cultivation and encouragement of girls’ achievements and interest in math and science. And Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research says that “when a girl believes that she can become smarter and learn what she needs to know in STEM subjects, she is more likely to succeed in a STEM field.”
The first product from the students’ company helps cultivate this STEM self-confidence for girls. Roominate is a toy that children can not only play with but also build and shape from the ground up. Roominate allows girls to custom build a miniature room of their choice with working circuits. LEGO attempted to create a similar product with the launch of LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet, which is based on the idea that girls can build too. Unfortunately, due to imbalanced engineering and too-simple instructions compared with LEGO toys created for boys, the set lacked challenge and creativity. In any case, toys that focus on construction are changing how girls plan their playtime and are receiving high marks from the parents who buy them.
Toys such as these also touch on an important aspect of Why So Few? by offering challenges through which girls build spatial skills. If girls grow up in an environment in which math, science, and spatial skills are cultivated, they are more likely to consider a STEM field in the future. When Brooks and her co-founders launched the idea for Roominate on Kickstarter, a website dedicated to funding creative projects, they received overwhelmingly positive feedback and exceeded their financial goal of $25,000. Roominate is now available online.
Although this all came about because a young girl received a saw instead of a Barbie, it is certainly a learning opportunity for all parents out there. When you encourage a girl to do something different and maybe forget about Barbie for a little while, the girl might just build her own life (and dollhouse) the way she would like to see it.
This post was written by AAUW STEM Programs Intern Jaleesa Hall.