GoldieBlox: A Construction Toy With a Story Line Builds Girls’ Interest in Engineering

Braids with Game

The story goes that Goldilocks searched for the perfect bed by breaking into the home of an innocent family of bears.

GoldieBlox, however, will just build a bed by herself.

GoldieBlox is a construction toy designed by Stanford University engineer Debbie Sterling and aimed at young girls. To use it, users read along with Goldie and build the machines the titular inventor builds to solve problems in her line of books.

It’s part of an effort to solve a much bigger problem. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2011 report, women have half as much presence in science and engineering fields as they do in the workforce as a whole. Another NSF study finds that only 4 percent of women enter college with plans to pursue an engineering degree. That figure falls to 0.4 percent for those intending to major in computer sciences.

In her mostly male field, Sterling said, she hopes to inspire a new generation of female engineers with her new girl-centric construction toys.

That’s why Sterling believes it’s crucial to break occupational gender norms — traditionally, girls flock toward the social sciences and humanities, while boys gravitate toward math and sciences. And, although her father was a software engineer, Sterling admits she had no clue what engineering was while she was growing up.

That’s where GoldieBlox comes in. With its pretty pastel coloring and spunky heroine, the toy eschews the notion that engineering is a cold, “manly” field. This may sound sexist to some, but Sterling is simply being realistic about appealing to little girls. In the future, Sterling plans to expand Goldie beyond mechanical engineering to e-books that would teach older girls basic coding.

At Stanford, Sterling initially dreaded her first engineering course, Mechanical Engineering 101, which she enrolled in on her high school math teacher’s suggestion.

“I really thought it was going to be my first F,” said Sterling, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering and product design. “But it was totally creative, building, collaborative and problem solving — all these things I liked.”

After quitting her job as the marketing director of a jewelry company last December, Sterling researched existing construction toys and observed how girls interacted with them.

One aspect stuck out to her in particular:

iPad with Game“I started noticing this thing where the girls weren’t interested in building what was on the front of the box, and would kind of get bored. So I would ask them what’s their favorite toy, and they would run upstairs and bring me back down a book.”

That’s when she realized she needed a way to synthesize little girls’ love of characters and books with the hands-on component of Legos and Erector sets.

Thus was born GoldieBlox, a girl engineer who guides readers through stories about building. But what should they build? Sterling looked up homemade physics and science projects, and settled on a basic belt drive, which became the basis of the first book.

She made the project more enticing by calling it a “spinning machine” that would twirl all the characters in the story, much like her favorite ride at Disneyland, the spinning teacups. Goldie’s spinning machine is comprised of thread spools, ribbons and a peg board.

“As soon as the narrative was introduced, the girls were totally engaged and really wanted to build the machines,” Sterling said. “Not to build the machines, but to spin the friends.”

Sterling received expert mentorship along the way, including from former college adviser David Kelley, the founder of Ideo. When Sterling showed Kelley her work, he immediately connected her with Brendan Boyle, a fellow partner at Ideo and head of its toy department.

“What I like about [GoldieBlox] is, No. 1, the company has purpose; and, No. 2, it has a strong point of view,” Boyle said.

Sterling hopes to expand the GoldieBlox brand over time by developing Goldie’s friends and adding to the complexity of their engineering tasks. In book two, Goldie builds a parade float; in three, a pulley elevator. She believes the strength of the brand lies in her strong protagonist.

“The most important [thing] is that she is an engineer role model,” she said. “With the other girly toys, they have beauticians, nurses and stuff. Those are all the typical role model characters that everybody’s already seen. Goldie’s an engineer, a tinkerer — you know she’s a maker and she’s cool.”

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus