Growing up as the book-loving daughter of a civil engineer added a special layer of nerdy angst to our household. There were so many dinner conversations where we’d try to explain our work to each other. But as soon as napkins turned to sketchbooks, drafting triangles appeared next to forks, metonymy displaced “real words,” or, God forbid, we tried to play a family game of Scrabble, Team Hard Science and Team Liberal Arts would rumble. As I fortified my room with walls of books, it became clear that engineering wasn’t in the cards.
Statistically, my story of girl-gone-humanities is pretty typical. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, males are six times more likely to have studied engineering between kindergarten and 12th grade, and in higher education, only 17.5% of computer science degrees and 18.1% of engineering degrees are awarded to women. These numbers are even starker for women of color; in 2008, only 3% of bachelors degrees in engineering, 9% in computer science, and 5% in mathematics were awarded to minority women. The absence of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a serious problem, but there have been advances in making these fields, particularly engineering, more approachable for young girls.
Debbie Sterling is one of the most innovative leaders in encouraging young girls’ discovery of engineering. Last year, she used Kickstarter to announce the creation of GoldieBlox—a novel construction toy and book series that motivates girls to engage with engineering at a very young age. With her engaging story and illustrations, Goldie brings young girls along on a journey that incorporates reading, problem solving, and, most excitingly, engineering. The Kickstarter campaign was a huge hit, and this past month, Debbie Sterling, writer, illustrator, and designer of GoldieBlox, brought her award-winning toy to stores nationwide.
You'll have to excuse me if I seem like a fan girl in my interview with Debbie Sterling—I am a huge fan, and only wish that Goldie had hit the mid 90s toy scene.
Suzanna Bobadilla: Thanks so much for sitting down with us! First off, can you describe your tipping point with GoldieBlox?
Debbie Sterling: I was in the living room of my friend Ian, and he has three daughters, and I was watching them play. There was a pile of building blocks on one side of the room and books on the other. The girls, all they wanted to do was to read the books. And when they were playing with the blocks, all they wanted to do was to make up stories about what they were building. They were like, “I’m going to make a tower,” or they would put some blocks down, pretending they were at a grocery store, shopping. When I was sitting there, I looked at the books at one side of the room and blocks on the other. I was like, “Oh my gosh, why are these things so separated? Why not bring them together? And have a more story-based building, more reading and building?” That felt like a major aha.
But it was one of the hundreds ideas I had in my sketchbook that I was working on over several months. Over Christmas break, I flew up to visit my in-laws in Seattle. One of their family friends was the cofounder of Pictionary, so he agreed to meet with me for coffee. And I really thought that the Goldie stories and building idea was the best one, but I wanted to know what he thought. So we were flipping through my sketchbook, and I showed him all of the concepts, and at the end of it, he opens to the GoldieBlox, he was like “this is the one.”
And that was a tipping point because from that moment on, not only was it my favorite concept, but it was from someone who I really valued and respected. He offered to be my adviser, and I’ve been using him a lot, I call him like every other day. He’s been wonderful and is an investor in the company. That was a tipping point, having the founder of Pictionary like your project.”
SB: Designing a toy for children sounds like an awesome job. What types of techniques or outreach did you do for research?
DS: My educational background was strong in engineering and product design, but I didn’t have any experience in the toy industry. So I found advisers who had backgrounds in that, and I read a lot of books, but I think honestly, not knowing a lot about the toy industry has been a huge advantage.
I did a lot of research on cognitive development, gender development, books on the female brain, childhood development at each age, what their motor skills are, what they are interested in. I met with many elementary school teachers, and also people who run after-school nonprofit programs about STEM, and I just asked them, “What works, what doesn’t? What are the differences between how boys and girls play?” So I really took a multidisciplinary approach to the problem, where I researched it from every angle I possibly could.
From teachers, to nonprofits, to toy industry people, to neuroscientists, to parents, to kids, to looking at the competitive landscape, to reading every children’s book I could get my hands on. Anything that was remotely in the universe, I reached. Because it enabled me to pull some interesting themes, and some of the research I’ve gotten has come from unexpected places.
SB: How did you try to communicate engineering through words and illustrations?
DS: Every book starts with a little intro where GoldieBlox says, “I like reading, it’s true, but I like building too, and so when you see this symbol try to do what I do.” And there’s an icon symbol that appears throughout the book, and when you see it, there is an instructional cue that tells you how to build along. Next, there is the bill of materials, which is the following page, and every engineering project starts with a bill of materials that lists out all of the construction materials that come with the kit. In that introduction, girls learn some vocabulary about simple machines. They are learning what an axle is, or a crank, pegboard, or a wheel. And then those words recur throughout the book with an icon of what the part looks like, so they are starting to build an engineering vocabulary.
In the story, I actually made a real, conscious effort to not overtly talk about engineering, at all. But it’s still written around themes I learned about in engineering. For example, in the story Goldie gets inspired by her ballerina music box, the one where you lift the lid and the ballerina spins and plays music. And she wants to learn how it works, so she rips it apart and learns that it spins on a wheel and axle. That’s a lesson on reverse engineering, one of the first things you learn about in engineering school; if you want to learn how something works, you break it apart and then put it back together. So the book doesn’t say, “now do reverse engineering.” It just does it, in a way that girls can relate to. Because every little girl owns one of those ballerina boxes. It’s a classic toy.
GoldieBlox takes engineering and lessons, “if you pull this, this happens,” “if you stack this, this happens.” But it doesn’t do it in a way that a textbook would. It’s just a part of a story with quirky characters with themes that pop up in any little girl’s life.
SB: Did you face any roadblocks (no pun intended) in creating your project?
DS: After we were founded on Kickstarter, we promised the toys like four months later, which I thought was more than enough time. I was really excited, thinking, “We’re going to send everyone their toys early,” because I had padded it with extra time. But what I didn’t know was how long it takes to actually manufacture, especially working with a factory overseas in China. The prototype was just perfect, but I didn’t realize that there is that there is a very enormous difference between a prototype and a mass-manufactured toy. It’s even harder with a construction toy, because the pieces have to fit together perfect—the hole can’t be too big, can’t be too small. These differences are hundredths of a millimeter, and that’s really, really advanced engineering, beyond anything I learned in college.
What I wasn’t expecting was how much back and forth we had to go through to get a shippable project. It took months longer than I expected, and I had to fly out there twice because they could not get it right. It was really stressful, but, luckily, we shipped only a few weeks after we promised we would. I think a lot of our customers have said that we are the only Kickstarter project that has ever shipped on time, I guess by being a month late just one time, but that’s fine. Most people were pretty forgiving about that.
SB: It seems like your marketing campaign is a response to traditional toys' gendered juxtaposition between pretty princesses and rough-and-tough engineers.
DS: My goal with GoldieBlox is really to make engineering cool and relevant to the majority of girls and to mainstream America. As the original designer of the toy, I spent a lot of time with girls, and I’m a girl. A pretty average, middle of the road girl. I’m not on one extreme or the other. I wasn’t a toyboy only, nor was I a prima donna. And those are extremes that I don’t think most people relate to. The mainstream, average kid has a lot of interests and is a multidimensional person. But if you go into the toy aisle, you see the extreme.
I think if you left out the femininity entirely, it wouldn’t appeal to most girls. It wouldn’t appeal to me. At the same time, I’ve tried so hard not to enforce gender stereotypes and just to be unique and different. There are so many spa, beauty parlor, and salon products for girls. If we are having GoldieBlox build a salon or a spa, we’re not really standing out and offering something different.
SB: What about “big girls” who didn’t study STEM, but are still interested in learning more. Has that ship sailed?
DS: Not at all! There is a lot of stuff popping up, particularly aimed at women, because women represent the largest untapped resource for STEM. Off the top of my head, I can rattle off Code.org, Codecademy, Hackbright. Hackbright is specifically for women, but they all make it easy to start learning how to code. If I ever have any free time, I’m going to learn how to do it.
The other cool thing is the maker movement. There are Maker Faires popping up all over the world, and I would really encourage anyone who is interested in STEM to go. Look at the Make website and find the next event, as they offer many engineering projects. Get inspired and learn how to make stuff! Also, it’s finally becoming affordable to use 3-D printing technology, and it’s really going to change thinking about how physical projects are created. There are a bunch of 3-D printing workshops. I just visited one at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
There are all kinds of things popping up all over the place. A lot of them are directed toward children, but there are definitely opportunities for big kids too!