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Designing toys to inspire girls to take up engineering

Bothered by the dearth of women in her profession, Debbie Sterling decided to do something about it.

'Goldie Blox is a female engineer. She's not a nerd, and maybe she's not a genius. She's just a creative kid who likes to invent. She tinkers and builds and isn't scared to fail.' That's how Debbie Sterling describes the character she created (see her blog). GoldieBlox, a toy featuring Goldie, hits stores in mid-April, and Sterling hopes she has found a formula that will get girls building.

After earning her bachelor's in the mechanical engineering subspecialty of product design from Stanford University in 2005, Sterling worked as a brand strategist for a few years. She liked her work, but after a while, she says, 'I was not finding it very fulfilling to come up with a design strategy for dog food. I didn't feel it was making anybody's life better.' To shake things up, she headed to India for a few months. While there, she launched a crowdfunding effort before crowdfunding existed. It was called 'I want a goat' and went viral. Then she went back to the US and worked a few more years before quitting her job to follow her passion and realize GoldieBlox.

'I refuse to believe that girls can't be as good at spatial skills or math or science as boys,' she says. 'I wanted to know what was different.' She interviewed parents, neuroscientists, and psychologists, and she played with hundreds of kids. Along the way, she had her 'aha' moment: Boys like to build, and girls like a story. She decided to blend storytelling and building, and came up with GoldieBlox. 'It's not that girls are not interested in engineering or building, it just hasn't been presented to them in a way that appeals,' she says.

Physics Today caught up with Sterling by telephone.

PT: Why did you go into engineering?

STERLING: When I was applying to college, I asked my [high school] math teacher to write me a recommendation letter. She asked me what I planned to major in so she could mention it in the letter. I said I didn't know, and she said, 'I really think you should consider engineering.' I remember thinking, 'What a funny thing to suggest. Does this woman know me at all?' I didn't even know what engineering was—I had this image of an old man fixing trains or something. But sometimes things that people say get stuck in your head.

I ended up going to Stanford. I couldn't forget that suggestion, so I took mechanical engineering 101, and I absolutely loved it. The class was project based, with collaborating, solving problems, tinkering, and building things. I declared it as my major.

PT: What did you do after you graduated?

STERLING: My first job out of college I worked for a design and branding agency in Seattle. My job was brand strategist. It's a little like engineering, because I worked on the design side. I was really learning about how brands do marketing, and doing research to figure out how to tap into people's emotions.

Then I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas. Literally within a few weeks I got placed in rural India. I moved out to Koraput, Orissa. My job was to work with field workers there. I analyzed what was going on and reported the good and the bad.

PT: How did 'I want a goat' come about?

STERLING: You know how you can come up with an idea that sounds ludicrous? And I actually did it! While I was in India, I saw this really successful goat program. The goats only cost $20, and they transform a village. I thought, I want to do something like this, and have each of my friends give me $20 for a goat. Twenty bucks for us is nothing, it's like a trip to Starbucks.

So my boyfriend—now my husband—shot a music video. All the villagers danced and sang. We had a blast. We got the website We put the video up with this really simple message: I want a goat. If you wanted to pay extra, you could give your goat avatar a mohawk, or Ugg boots, or Manolo Blahniks, or whatever. You could give your goat a name. We ended up raising over $30 000. We made it fun and engaging, and we got a lot of traction from the 18- to 25-year-old audience, which notoriously never donates money.

This was 2009. It's funny, because later I ended up crowdfunding for GoldieBlox.

PT: How did you develop GoldieBlox?

STERLING: After I came back from India, I was marketing director of a jewelry company. There I actually got to do some engineering finally. One of the immediate needs I saw was that they had been just selling the product, the jewelry, alone. It needed displays and packaging and all kinds of stuff to go with it. So I got to design and develop those, from sketching in a sketchbook to prototypes to actually having it manufactured in China. It was a really fun job, but it didn't feel like it was what I was born to do, which I've always been searching for.

While I was there, I came up with the idea for GoldieBlox. I was talking with a friend who was a fellow mechanical engineer from Stanford. We were complaining about the lack of women in engineering. She said that she got interested in engineering when she was a little girl because she played with her older brothers' hand-me-down Legos. She said 'I never knew it was for boys, because I had brothers.' And I said, 'Well, my parents didn't buy Legos for me.'

I realized at that moment there was a huge gap in the marketplace for toys that would get girls interested in math and science and develop spatial skills. It was not only a big opportunity, it felt morally wrong. Maybe that was a huge contributor to girls and women not having much interest in these topics as boys.

The instant we started talking about it, I thought 'Oh my gosh, this is what I was born to do!' I wasn't born to be a brand designer at some fancy agency. I wasn't born to be the goat lady. It was as clear as day that this—creating a toy to engage girls in math and science—was what I am supposed to do.

PT: So how did you go from the idea to the reality?

STERLING: I started sketching ideas and doing research on every single toy out here. I read articles about cognitive development in children, gender differences and the brain. I bought a bunch of construction toys and I would try and get my friends to let me come over and play with their kids. I met with teachers and nonprofits that try to get girls interested in engineering.

I became obsessed. It was really hard to go to work every day. I would literally wait until my bosses went out on their lunch break, and then I would run over to Toys 'R' Us, or I'd go researching online.

In December 2011, I finally decided I needed to leave my job and do [my research on engineering toys for girls] full time. About two weeks after I left, I came up with my big huge idea, which was that girls were way more interested in verbal storytelling and narrative play, and boys are more tactile and objects oriented.

So I introduced this character-based storytelling narrative. It was like the missing piece that really got girls to engage.

PT: Describe GoldieBlox.

STERLING: The hardest part about writing GoldieBlox—and it is a book series—is balancing storytelling with instructions. You have to tell the kids what to do and how to build it, but you also need them to fall in love with the Goldie Blox character and have it be an engaging book. The stories are funny and quirky. It's not supposed to be 'engineering is hard.' It's supposed to be 'engineering is cool, and everybody should give it a try and have fun with it.'

PT: Is the engineering explicit?

STERLING: Yes. In the first book, Goldie comes up with the idea of building a spinning machine so her dog Nacho can chase his tail faster. She is inspired by her ballerina music box—you know the ones where you lift the lid and it plays music and the ballerina spins? So Goldie rips the box apart and learns that it spins on a wheel and axle. Then she builds a spinning machine for Nacho. So there is engineering, but it's written in a cute and accessible way.

PT: What does the GoldieBlox toy include? And what's the target age?

STERLING: We appeal to a broad age range. As young as 4 can put it together with parent participation. Around 6 and 7 they can do it on their own.

It's a book and a construction kit. With the first set, Goldie ends up building a belt drive. It comes with a peg board, wheels, a ribbon, axles, blocks, a crank, and washers. Thirty-three pieces.

In the next story—we haven't decided when we're going to launch it—Goldie builds a parade float. It's a vehicle. In that story, there are nine wheels, longer axles, different length and color ribbons, and more blocks, so you build a different thing and you learn new engineering principles—pulleys, gears, levers, force, friction, tension, etc.

I have already planned out about 20 different things that we will be able to build in the future. All of the pieces are thoroughly thought through and compatible—so the wheels have holes you don't use in the first book, but you use them in the second.

PT: What about boys?

STERLING: Getting girls interested is where this started, and it's my passion. That said, boys love playing with GoldieBlox. And I think having boys and girls falling in love with this Goldie Blox character is awesome, because it shows everyone that girls belong in engineering. Moving forward, I plan to introduce male characters.

PT: How did you fund the research and development for GoldieBlox?

STERLING: When I got to the point where I had to incorporate as a business, pay lawyers, and real factory prototyping, that's when I couldn't afford it anymore. I raised a round of seed money from friends and family and angel investors. And then I went up on Kickstarter [in summer 2012]. That was great, I raised the cash to keep on going.

It's been extremely fast—like a high-speed train.

But this is my thing. I wake up every morning, so excited to be doing this every day. Eager to hear what the kids have to say. I just want to improve it and make it better and better. I want to impact and inspire these kids. That's all I want to do.

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