Goldieblox is designed to lead girls to tech-heavy careers

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Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013 12:00 am

Move over, Barbie; there's a new girl in town.

She goes by GoldieBlox, and unlike her namesake, Goldilocks, she doesn't get into mishaps involving three bears. This Goldie is a female engineer character who invents, designs and builds to inspire a future generation of female engineers.

GoldieBlox is the brainchild of Stanford University graduate and engineer-turned-entrepreneur Debbie Sterling. She created GoldieBlox — which includes a construction toy set and storybook starring the tool-wielding character Goldie — to teach girls basic engineering skills and open more pathways for women to pursue jobs in the male-dominated industry.

“I'm trying to give girls something more than just dolls and princesses,” she said.

Sterling, 30, hopes that the soon-to-be-released GoldieBlox will teach more girls to love tech-heavy disciplines and open their minds to engineering. And if Sterling can shake up the old-school toy industry, which for years has offered girls little more than busty dolls and pink Legos, all the better, she said.

“If you're a little girl, you have Barbie and Polly Pocket,” Sterling said. “You have fashion icons and beauty and spa, and you're told what's important is what you look like.”

But this isn't just a plug for girl power. Oakland, Calif.-based GoldieBlox has caught the attention of researchers and educators across the country who say the toy could help engage more girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM), an education priority for the Obama administration.

The percentage of women graduating with engineering-related bachelor's degrees has plateaued over the last 10 years, according to research by Brian Yoder of the American Society for Engineering Education. In 2002, women represented about 21 percent of all engineering bachelor's graduates and in 2011, women accounted for about 18 percent. That's despite efforts to expose girls to STEM fields.

The GoldieBlox book, written and illustrated by Sterling, follows Goldie as she invents machines and solves problems with a cast of animal friends that includes a Spanish-speaking dog, Nacho, and a tutu-wearing pink dolphin. The pegboard and tool kit allow kids to build whatever Goldie is building in the book and learn engineering concepts, such as how a wheel and axle work and the basics of tension, force and friction.

“I can't wait to have her sitting there on store shelves in her overalls and her tool belt, because I think that sends a strong message,” Sterling said.

The message is this: Engineering isn't just for boys.

Toys are a crucial entry point for kids to get exposure to STEM disciplines, and girls miss out on some of the early playtime experiences necessary to develop those skills, said Yvonne Ng, who heads St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education.

“We're not engaging girls. We're still thinking in very male terms,” Ng said.

By the fifth grade, Ng said, many girls have “checked out” of math and science, which they see as boys' subjects where girls can't succeed. That self-doubt extends to higher education, where girls are more likely to drop out of science- and math-based majors.

“There's this belief that they're not competent, even if their grades say they are,” Ng said. “Women don't feel like an engineer. They feel like an impostor.”

Sterling, who graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 2005, developed GoldieBlox with help from Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding platform for creative projects. She raised $286,000 — almost twice her goal — in about a month. After her fundraising video went viral on social media, she received about 22,000 online pre-orders for the toy, which brought in money to start production.

The project was inspired by the gender inequity Sterling witnessed firsthand as an engineering student.

“I was one of very few women in the program,” she said. “In every class I went into, I was always one of a handful of girls in a room of 80 or 90 people. It's hard being a minority in a male-dominated field.”

According to studies by the American Association of University Women, about 87 percent of professional engineers are men.

Sterling hopes GoldieBlox will move that statistic in the favor of women. The toy lands on store shelves in a few weeks, but the first 18,000 pre-ordered copies are set to be delivered sooner. Already, Sterling has plans to make GoldieBlox into a series and says she's set to launch an interactive digital version for the Apple iPad late this year.

The successes, or failures, of GoldieBlox will be tracked by a Pennsylvania State University professor and graduate student who will spend the next couple of years studying the effect the toy has on girls. Lynn Liben, a distinguished professor of psychology who is leading the research, said that GoldieBlox is one of the few toys that breaks the gender stereotypes reinforced by the toy industry.

“Many toy companies are still marketing to boys versus girls,” Liben said. “It tells people that boys and girls are different when it comes to playing or building or getting dirty. That can be problematic because not every kid fits that gender tendency that might be typical.”

– World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr contributed to this report.

Girls Inc. program gives Omaha eighth-graders a push

Ask four local eighth-grade girls involved in Eureka — a Girls Inc. math, science, sports and leadership program held during the summer at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — about how they developed their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and they'll say the earlier the exposure the better, and making it fun matters.

Victoria Beaugard

Victoria Beaugard, 14, of St. Philip Neri School: Girls Inc. has pushed her to use her strength in math to be a lawyer when she grows up. “(Girls Inc.) always tell you that you should do jobs that usually a male could do,” she says. “Going there since I was younger really helped. It makes you think one day you can be at the top, where usually males are.” Engineering-focused toys, she says, are a good idea because “if you start at an early age ... it will come easier to you later.”

Alexis Riley

Alexis Riley, 13, of Sacred Heart School: Engineering piqued her interest as a little girl, and she now is thinking of being a science teacher because she loves science and her mom is a science teacher, too. “I wanted to learn more about engineering because when we would drive around and I'd see different work trucks, I wanted to know what they're doing.”

Monica Hart

Monica Hart, 14, of Sacred Heart School: With plans to pursue a career in the medical field, potentially as a nurse or veterinarian, she said the Eureka program introduced her to learning about STEM fields through games and group activities. Through tinkering with robots and programming, she “saw a different side” of learning math and science. A toy like GoldieBlox, she said, gives young girls the chance to play with a hands-on toy.

Tori Dunston

Tori Dunston, 13, of Sacred Heart School: She dreams of getting a job in engineering because she likes math and design. Girls Inc., she said, taught her that she can excel in any job she puts time and effort into. “It teaches you to be strong, smart and bold. That goes with the criteria of having an untraditional job (for a female).” Of GoldieBlox, Dunston said that engineering-focused girls toys “show a fun way of learning.”

– Emily Nohr

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