Could a toy that encourages girls towards STEM be the best way to balace the gender gap in these fields?
Year after year, three female students sat through college engineering and math classes asking themselves the same question—where are the girls? The students—Jennifer Kessler, Alice, Brooks, and Bettina Chen—realized they all shared childhood experiences that drew them to technology, business, and math, fields typically dominated by men despite women’s educational asecendence. So they invented a toy girls can build from the ground up to inspire them to take on male-dominated fields.
Roominate is the toy "where every young girl is an artist, engineer, architect, and visionary" with her own opportunity to build a dollhouse-sized room, customize the furniture, select the decorations, and electrify the whole thing with working circuits. Kessler, Brooks, and Chen began the project while studying engineering and business as graduate students at Stanford. Their Kickstarter reached its $25,000 goal within five days, and ended on June 16 with almost $86,000 raised. They sold more than 1,300 units and the waiting list shows even more demand.
The women say they were all given the tools at a young age to eschew gender stereotypes. Brooks got a saw when she asked for a Barbie. Kessler loved to solve math riddles. Chen grew up building Lego creations with her brother, never being told that the toy was intended for boys. The older they got though, the more gender disparity the women faced. According to the National Science Foundation, only 15 percent of female college freshmen plan to major in science, technology, engineering, or math, and less than 11 percent of engineers are women.
Chen says her electrical engineering class at the California Institute of Technology was 10 to 15 percent women. “I guess I got used to it, but it kind of sucked,” she says. “I didn't get why there weren’t many girls. A lot of times people assume, ‘Oh, you’re a girl. You’re not going to be doing engineering, you’re going to be a humanities major.'”
Brooks’ mechanical engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was 40 percent women, but she still felt she had to prove herself of being worthy of the major. “I don’t think it has to be that way for future women,” she says.
Roominate moves young girls away from the pink and frilly and towards the thoughtful and creative. Two hundred girls have tested the toy so far. Some have decided to make their room a restaurant or a pet shop, designed accordingly, then powered it up with a working fan or lit miniature television. Brooks says one of her favorite moments was with a seven-year-old girl who was curious about how the prototype was built. Within a half hour of Brooks explaining how Roominate is designed and cut with a laser, the girl was creating a 3-D box of her own and trying out advanced software.
“That’s exactly what we want,” Kessler says. “We want Roominate to be an exploratory place for girls to see how the world works, and tinkering with things, and to gain confidence in themselves.”
Now that the project is funded, the women have put down the soldering irons and outsourced to a contract store in the Bay Area to create the prototypes in bulk. They plan to expand and ship internationally. You can purchase a Roominate for the smart young girl in your life by joining the wait list on their website.
Images courtesy of Roominate