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Annie, Get Your Screw Gun
Diana Kapp | Photo: Gabriela Hasbun | March 22, 2013
How a fully wired, build-it-youself dollhouse could foster the next generation of girl geeks.
Brooks and Chen first locked eyes at orientation for Stanford’s engineering master’s program in 2010. They bonded instantly, as females tended to do in a graduate program that was 83 percent male. Even as undergrads at nerdy MIT (Brooks) and the California Institute of Technology (Chen), they weren’t used to being so outnumbered. “It made me miss my East Coast girlfriends even more,” Brooks says.
That gender shock was part of a phenomenon that has become increasingly worrisome to educators, researchers—even President Obama. “We’ve got to lift our game up... That’s why we’re emphasizing teaching girls math and science,” he said in a May 2011 speech. In high school, girls and boys start out studying math and science in equal numbers, but by grad school, American girls are slipping way behind. The gap widens in the working world, where 87 percent of engineers, and 65 percent of scientists as a whole, are male. No matter that women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers earn 33 percent more than those in other fields, or that by 2018, according to Commerce Department projections, 9 of the 10 fastest-growing occupations will require significant STEM training. The shortage of girl geeks has become so dire that in 2011, Etsy had to fund a hacker school to boost its roster of female engineers from 3 to 20.
Brooks and Chen’s quest to change all that began in Stanford’s popular “Lean LaunchPad” class for budding entrepreneurs. Determined to come up with a startup idea more meaningful than a new kind of pedometer or another karaoke app, they asked themselves why they had become engineers in the first place. “It’s because growing up, I loved making toys and other things,” Brooks says. “I think more girls should have that.”
One of their first advisers was professor Sheri Sheppard, an expert in engineering education whose research—on topics like what makes high school math and science compelling—has left her convinced that early play holds one of the keys. The problem isn’t so much the obvious cultural stereotyping that pushes boys toward blocks and cars and girls toward dress-up and dolls, Sheppard says. It’s that active “boy play” (including throwing and hitting and kicking all those real and digital balls for all those years) turns out to be much better for developing the kind of spatial skills—translating 2-D instructions into a 3-D skyscraper or rotating a shape in your head—that are now widely believed to correlate with STEM success. Toddlers who spend time doing puzzles over several sessions score higher on mental rotation tasks when they get to preschool. Fifth graders who play Atari’s Marble Madness maze game significantly increase their spatial skills, while kids who play word games do not. The most famous feminist in tech, Sheryl Sandberg, is always hammering this point—“Let your daughters play video games,” she urged at a recent panel on jobs and competitiveness. The good news is that kids’ brains seem easily retrainable. “When you just expose girls [to tasks requiring spatial skills], they get right up to the same level as boys,” Sheppard says.
But finding a toy that makes girls actually want to play like their brothers—now that’s a challenge. Wander the aisles of Toys “R” Us and you see what happens when mainstream manufacturers try to think like an army of Marissa Mayers: pink and lavender Legos and Computer Engineer Barbie.
Chen and Brooks had their own share of rookie missteps. Their first concept was a pig-mobile—a pink body with a snap-together chassis and attachable wheels, heavy on the glitter. “We wanted something mechanical that girls would build,” Chen says. But when she and Brooks showed Peggy the Pig to some girls for feedback, it was not love at first sight. “The only squeal we got was over a stuffed hamster that one girl ran and grabbed out of her room,” Chen says.
"Peggy was chocolate-covered broccoli,” Brooks says. Even blinged-out and disguised as the cutest critter ever, cars and trucks just don’t appeal to the average wanna-be Ariel or Belle. “It was like we were trying to put educational elements in, and they could tell.” Lesson no. 1: “The building part had to be more seamlessly a part of the experience,” Chen says.
Their next idea, a sewing-kit takeoff on Tangrams—a puzzle game with geometric shapes that are arranged to form other shapes—also struck out. So did their make-it-yourself LED light-up bracelets and glowing felt purses. Then, one afternoon, taking an X-Acto knife to an empty oatmeal carton, Chen and Brooks constructed a house using simple squares and rectangles, with rooms scaled to fit the Polly Pocket figures that little girls adore. They filled it with Popsicle-stick furniture, tiny paper plants, and groovy chairs made from an old pink mop. The pièce de résistance was a simple circuit—just two wires welded together—that powered a bedside light. This time, Chen and Brooks had little girls elbowing each other out of the way at Maker Faire for a chance to play. The requisite Kickstarter campaign raised $86,000—three times the goal—in a month.
The product now called Roominate has gotten much sleeker and hipper, as would be expected for a toy that costs from $59 for the single-room version to $225 for the deluxe château. But the basic idea is the same: attachable pieces and electronics that can be used to make virtually anything a little girl can think of, from the walls of a beach cabana, to a whirring mini-blender for whipping up pretend strawberry-banana smoothies, to a triple-decker bed to accommodate doll-size pajama partyers. Girls create pet stores with little cages and tiny bones in tiny bins, and restaurants with waiters equipped with teensy iPads to take orders for itsy-bitsy fries. A motor turns the world’s fastest spinning cupcake table. The electronics don’t feel like Hershey’s-covered science lessons, but rather like tools to make make-believe more exciting.
This, as it turns out, has been Roominate’s biggest aha: Girls tell stories. They’re obsessed with dramatic play. They relate to characters with relationships and problems. “When we brought some popular toys”—a Lego figure, circuits—“to observe how girls play, they combined the unrelated things into a giant story,” Chen says. “We never expected that.”
It’s an insight backed by piles of research: Girl babies gaze at moving faces longer than at moving cars. Little boys build towers of blocks to see how high they can get; little girls use blocks to further the narrative. What’s more, stories help girls, in particular, retain information. When Boston College educational psychologist Beth Casey, a pioneer in the study of gender, spatial skills, and math, embedded geometry lessons in stories, girls tested better on the concepts than those who were taught with numbers alone. “With girls, you need a more structured kind of situation, where the skills you want them to learn are provided through the context of story or through the requirements of the activity,” Casey says. “I don’t mean direct instruction—I mean scaffolding.” This type of invisible structure may be the most important part of what Roominate groupies are building, and they don’t even know it.