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GoldieBlox game encourages girls to build engineering skills

Debbie Sterling poses with Goldiblox a game she invented that encourages girls to get interested in engineering.
Debbie Sterling poses with Goldiblox a game she invented that encourages girls to get interested in engineering.
Katrina Schwartz
Debbie Sterling poses with Goldiblox a game she invented that encourages girls to get interested in engineering.
Goldiblox, a game that is designed to encourage girls to get interested in engineering.
Katrina Schwartz

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The fields of science, technology, engineering and math are some of the fastest growing in the country, but women are under-represented in these jobs. That gender gap is expected to widen.

The White House and the Girl Scouts are two of the many groups that have emphasized the need to get more girls into STEM fields at an early age. One woman — a Stanford engineering graduate — is doing just that with GoldieBlox, a game she created to encourage girls to build spatial and engineering skills. 

Reporter Katrina Schwartz has the story.

Meet the girl named GoldieBlox, a toy invented by Debbie Sterling aimed at introducing girls to engineering and offering a new kind of role model that's that's not pink.

"She likes to think outside the box and then right on the first page, we have our icon which tells you to stick an axle into a peg board, so immediately we see that we're going to be building along as we read," said Sterling. "I thought of so many girls out there like me who just probably never got interested in [engineering] because they were never exposed," said Sterling.

She started out by researching how boys and girls differ in play style, looking for the key to capturing girls' interest.

"My ah-ha moment was that instead of a construction toy only, which is spatial skills and object play, I would combine spatial and verbal, so I would have the construction toy plus the book," said Sterling. 

So she wrote and illustrated a book starring Goldie, a girl engineer who takes apart a music box to understand how the ballerina inside spins. Then she builds a machine so all her friends can spin too, just like the ballerina.

"By introducing the story of Goldie and her characters, and building for a reason, it gave girls the context that they were craving and the narrative behind the play that was meaningful to them," said Sterling.

Sterling hopes that Goldie will be the kind of offbeat role model that she didn't have growing up.

"She is well liked, she's fun, she's quirky, she's a little messy, and she's curious, and she loves tinkering," said Sterling. 

Sterling based Goldieblox on the research showing that girls often prefer narrative-based play. She was sure to include setbacks, since no one becomes an engineer without some failure along the way. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, studies why there are so few girls in math and science careers. She says a big part of helping girls succeed in these areas is teaching them to persevere.

"If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that that's part of learning, it's part of building and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that's really useful," said Dweck. "Research finds that if you show a role model who's too different from where you are now, it can be intimidating and demotivating. So the girl has to see a way to get there."

A game like Goldieblox could be a good first step, if the play can be clearly connected to actually becoming an engineer. Debbie Sterling says she made the story silly so no one would feel turned away, but the game still exposes girls to how simple machines work.

"A wheel spinning on an axle, a lever, a pulley, gears, these are the basic building blocks of, sort of, all of engineering," said Sterliing. "And they're really simple, but once you understand those you can kind of look at anything and see how it's made."

Goldieblox exploded from makeshift prototype to specialty toy store stardom mostly because of a Kickstarter video. That's how Martin Miller discovered it and bought it for his six-year-old daughter Kaitlin. Like many customers who preordered the game to help fund its manufacturing, Miller is an engineer.

"It touched my heart that it was a mechanical toy that was targeted towards young girls," said Miller. That's unusual and I felt that was perfect for my little daughter," said Miller. 

Sterling says industry experts told her Goldieblox wouldn't work and that "princesses reign supreme," but she didn't believe that.  "The fundamental idea of parents wanting more for their girls, I instinctually believed that it was true," said Sterling. 

It certainly appears that her instincts are on point. Sterling almost doubled her $250,000 dollar Kickstarter goal and pre-sold 25,000 Goldieblox sets. It can also be found in specialty toy stores, like Mr. Mopp's, a Berkeley institution, co-owned by Devin McDonald.

"The whole thing just seemed really great to me because there's not many scientifically, or engineeringly or even constructively, as far as building and stuff, toys directed at girls," said McDonald.   

Sterling and her team are already working on three more storylines, with interchangeable parts, so girls can keep building more complex machines.