Engineering alumna develop toys to inspire young female engineers

Dec. 22, 2014, 1:00 p.m.

One typically thinks of an engineering degree as the entrance to a future in the tech industry. For three Stanford alumnae, however, engineering was the path towards a career in developing children’s toys, and their products aim to inspire young girls to develop interests in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

After completing her master’s in electrical engineering at Stanford, Bettina Chen M.S. ’12 went on to co-found Roominate with Alice Brooks M.S. ’12. Debbie Sterling ’05, who earned a B.A. in product design, is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, which shares Roominate’s commitment to engaging girls, rather than just boys, in active play through their toys. Roominate and GoldieBlox encourage girls to build by catering to their interests: Users can create various house-like structures with the toys’ modular pieces.

Both products had similar origins. When Chen and Sterling noticed a gender disparity in the field of engineering, they examined how they themselves had developed an interest in the discipline. Chen explained that she and her co-founder thought about childhood memories.

“It was really toys that we played with when we were younger that first inspired our love for building and tinkering,” Chen said.

Unfortunately, the toy industry often markets games to a certain gender, and historically, there are fewer “active-play” games for girls. If girls are less exposed to building at a young age, they may feel less adept at dealing with such materials in school.

“I would say, in particular though, since the ’80s, there seemed to be more and more gendered toys,” said Carol Muller, the executive director at Stanford WISE Ventures. “There always has been to some extent, in the sense that there was a feeling that girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks, even though lots of girls play with trucks, and [there are] boys who play with dolls.”

“The main idea of Roominate is really all about open-ended play and creativity and really letting girls build anything,” Chen said.

According to Chen, exposing girls to the vocabulary and skills pertaining to creating will help them become accustomed to similar scientific practices later. Roominate develops these skills through house-like toys which are not restricted to step-by-step instruction. GoldieBlox offers a similar approach, but through the storyline of a character named “GoldieBlox.”

“Another key component are the circuits,” Chen said. “For a lot of girls, they have never put batteries in a battery pack before.”

While both companies have been covered by media institutions, including TIME Magazine and The New York Times, GoldieBlox received recent attention from the press about its recent marketing video. Some writers have argued against the idea of making girls appear more “boyish” to be better fit for STEM.

“What I’ve seen in little girls, and especially with…the toys today that inundate the “pink aisle,” it’s all about being a perfect little princess,” Sterling said in an interview. “And the problem with that is that girls start to become afraid of making mistakes. And if you’re going to be successful in math and science and engineering, you’ve got to be okay with making mistakes because those topics are challenging.”

However, Muller believes that it is possible to be a “girly girl” and be interested in science. She also explained that gender stereotypes at a young age can often result in unsettling consequences.

“I think what’s important is to enable people as much as possible without gender stereotypes to have the opportunity to get interested in all kinds of endeavors,” Muller said. “Ideally, they would make their choices free of gender stereotypes.”

Contact Alexandra Bourdillon at abourdil ‘at’

Alexandra Bourdillon '18 is a freshman from Cupertino, CA. When she's not eating waffles, she can be found reading tea leaves or quantifying the land-speed velocity of a swallow (African, not European). After Stanford she hopes to explore the world, although the Bay Area will always be her home. To contact Alexandra, email her at abourdil ‘at’

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