Gadgets for Girls
The new toy that could change your daughter’s future.
Last Christmas, there was one toy even the most determined parent couldn’t find to put under the tree. No, it wasn’t a newly released electronic device or video game. It was a storybook-based, pastel-colored engineering kit for girls, equipped with wheels, cranks, and blocks. Yes, that’s right: GoldieBlox, an engineering toy for girls, sold out on Amazon and on the company’s own website. Diablo caught up with Debbie Sterling, founder of the Oakland-based company, to find out how she is inspiring a generation of women in the field of engineering.
Bio - Name: Debbie Sterling Age: 30 Education: Stanford, Mechanical Engineering/Product Design Job: Founder of GoldieBlox
Q: How did you get the idea for GoldieBlox?
A: I studied engineering and product design at Stanford, and the idea for GoldieBlox surfaced while I was having brunch with some friends. We were discussing why only 11 percent of engineers are women. No surprise, we all said, “Because most girls don’t even know what engineering is.” We talked about how the toys kids play with are so gender specific. There and then, I had my aha moment, and this idea became my obsession. I knew I wanted to create a toy that would spark girls’ interest in engineering, so [at first] I called it “Pink Legos.”
Q: Why pink?
A: Girls are attracted by pretty colors! I don’t agree that experts would say that just using the color pink plays into the same stereotypes. It’s what girls do with the pink things that’s important. This kit is not about playing house. It is about teaching girls to construct things.
Q: How did you put your idea into motion? (Pardon the pun.)
A: I don’t have kids, so I tried to talk to people who did, and would beg my friends to come over and play with their kids. I went to toy stores and saw that there was a huge gap between the aisles of boys’ construction toys and the pink aisles of girls’ toys. I talked to pediatricians and specialists in cognitive development. I went to nonprofits like Oakland’s Techbridge and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, and started hammering and drilling and making sketchbooks of working prototypes. I even went to talk to people at Harvard.
Then one day, a cousin of mine at Stanford put out a call for beta testers for the toy, and in one day, I got 80 e-mails from parents who wanted their kids to play with my prototypes. Over the course of three months, a team of four of us recorded the research results of over 100 kids, and tweaked the product as we went along. Pretty soon, we realized we had a strong enough concept that we could make this toy work.
Q: GoldieBlox is really more than just pink Legos. It’s a fun illustrated storybook and colorful construction kit all in one.
A: The stories are key. We found girls are interested in narrative-based play, playing with a purpose, role-playing, story lines, and creating real situations. They like to help people and solve problems. You can use engineering to do that.
I wrote the first two stories featuring Goldie, a real girl who is not a princess but an engineer: a girl who uses real engineering concepts, who wants to build things and help people like her friend, Ruby, and her dog, Nacho. Together, they have all these fun adventures, and in the process, they learn about engineering. Girls actually see how they can make a wheel spin, for example, by wrapping a belt around it and exerting force.
Q: I asked my 12-year-old if she’d ever heard of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math], and she didn’t know what I was talking about. What can schools do to change this?
A: There’s talk about getting girls into STEM careers, but there’s still very little exposure to engineering in K–12 [education]. I want girls to grow up knowing what engineering is and what it can do.
We use technical words like centrifuge in one of the books. Girls may not know what that means, but they will figure out what it does. We want them not to be afraid to ask questions. We want girls to see that Goldie is a tinkerer and an experimenter. If Goldie gets it wrong, that’s OK; she’ll get it right the next time.
Q: Here’s a question for all the guilt-ridden parents out there (like me) who swore they’d never let their daughters play with Barbies but ended up caving: Did you play with Barbies when you were a kid?
A: I definitely played with Barbies. I remember playing dress up, and I had lots of cute stuffed animals and dolls and girlie toys.
Q: But now, you are on the forefront of a revolution in girls’ education.
A: There’s research that, among popular culture STEM–focused role models—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates—men outnumber females 15 to 1. Girls should have more options. They should see other females succeeding in these areas. It’s really about seeing the world in a different way. Here’s my mantra: You cannot be what you cannot see.
Q: Finally, GoldieBlox has been in the news lately, not only for being selected for The Passion Project, but also for a video you produced that went viral, which parodied a Beastie Boys song, and also got you tangled in a lawsuit. A GoldieBlox commercial also aired during the Super Bowl after you won Intuit’s “Small Business, Big Game” contest.
A: Oh, wow. Where to start? We were selected for The Passion Project, an amazing project recognizing innovative creators and entrepreneurs. They produced a short video to highlight what we do. We got a lot of press, and toys were flying off the shelves. Then we were inspired to do our own video called The Princess Machine, about a Rube Goldberg–like machine. I was so proud of that vid. It made engineering cool and relevant to kids. We are working very hard to come to a legal settlement with the Beastie Boys. Last year was crazy.
We’ve been really spinning and cranking around here—ha!
For information, visit goldieblox.com.