If you’re a young boy interested in science and engineering, there are plenty of role models for the picking—the real life ones, of course, but also characters like Bob the Builder and Jimmy Neutron. But what about young girls? They can look towards the male characters, sure, but there isn’t much out there that’s geared directly to them. Debbie Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer, aims to change that with a series of books and construction toys for girls, all centered around a character named Goldie.
Sterling studied product design in Stanford’s mechanical engineering department, where she found herself the odd woman out. "l’ve always been obsessed with entering into male dominated fields, and I’d always find myself working on projects in engineering with all guys," she says.
After graduating in 2005, she spent time working in branding, marketing, and volunteering in rural India, all in an attempt to find her true passion. Then two years ago, a friend (another female mechanical engineer) suggested the idea of creating pink Lego bricks—a controversial idea, perhaps, considering the heat that the company behind Lego has taken for recently offering up a girl-centric product line, but one that got Sterling thinking about the idea of an engineering toy for girls.
"It struck me like a lightning bolt," she says. I quit my job in December to work on GoldieBlox full time."
The character of Goldie emerged after Sterling spent time in toy stores looking at what’s out there—mainly toys that are hooked into licensing deals with franchises like Dora the Explorer and Star Wars. "I tried to come up with a character that could be an instant hit. Goldielocks is this character that was never used by Disney. It’s this undefined character that could give an instant level of familiarity to compete with all those big names," she says.
Enter Goldie, a blonde little girl who lives in what Sterling calls "her crazy engineering house with gears and moving parts everywhere on a street with really boring houses." The first book, intended for girls ages 5 to 9, is called "GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine." It features Goldie, five character figurines (including Nacho the dog and Benjamin Cranklin the cranky cat), and a construction toy, featuring a pegboard, wheels, axles, blocks, a crank, a ribbon, and washers.
The book revolves around Goldie’s goal of creating a "spinning machine" for her dog, who enjoys chasing his tail and yelling out random words in Spanish. So Goldie rips apart a music box—the kind with a ballerina inside that spins and plays music—and attempts to reverse engineer it. After she succeeds in creating a spinning machine for her dog, she does the same for the rest of the five characters. Girls can follow along, creating their own spinning toys with the construction set as they read through the story.
User testing—Sterling and a team of volunteers tested the toy with a hundred girls—has been promising. "The reason why we’re probably even talking today is because the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. You put it in front of a kid and they’re pretty brutally honest," says Sterling. "We found that girls got into the story and wanted to build along with it."
Now Sterling is trying to bring publicity to the book and toy set with a Kickstarter campaign that has raised over $74,000 (at the time of writing) in two days. Sterling already has a manufacturer and a band of contracted employees to help out. She hopes that the attention from the Kickstarter campaign will be enough to get toy stores excited about the idea.
Next up: creating a series of GoldieBlox books and construction toys. Future books will feature a pulley system elevator, a parade float, circuits and gears, and eventually perhaps an eBook where Goldie learns to code.
Sterling admits that the project has been helped along by the interest over the past few years in getting girls more involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). "It’s a great climate to introduce GoldieBlox," she says. "Even if it had come out five years ago, I don’t think it would get as much excitement as it is now."