Beyond Barbie

Move over, Barbie; there's a new girl in town.

She goes by GoldieBlox, and unlike her namesake, Goldilocks, she doesn't get into mishaps involving three bears. This Goldie is a female engineer character who invents, designs and builds to inspire a future generation of women engineers.

GoldieBlox is the brainchild of Stanford University graduate and engineer-turned-entrepreneur Debbie Sterling. She created GoldieBlox — which includes a construction toy set and storybook starring the tool-wielding character Goldie — to teach girls basic engineering skills and open more pathways for women to pursue jobs in the male-dominated industry.

"I'm trying to give girls something more than just dolls and princesses," she said.

Sterling, 30, hopes that the soon-to-be-released GoldieBlox will teach more girls to love tech-heavy disciplines and open their minds to engineering. And if Sterling can shake up the old-school toy industry, which for years has offered girls little more than busty dolls and pink Legos, all the better, she said.

"If you're a little girl, you have Barbie and Polly Pocket," Sterling said. "You have fashion icons and beauty and spa, and you're told what's important is what you look like."

But this isn't just a plug for girl power; Oakland, Calif.-based GoldieBlox has caught the attention of researchers and educators across the country who say the toy could help engage more girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, an education priority for the Obama administration.

The GoldieBlox book, written and illustrated by Sterling, follows Goldie as she invents machines and solves problems with a cast of animal friends that includes a Spanish-speaking dog, Nacho, and a tutu-wearing pink dolphin. The pegboard and tool kit allow kids to build whatever Goldie is building in the book, and learn engineering concepts, like how a wheel and axle work and the basics of tension, force and friction.

"I can't wait to have her sitting there on store shelves in her overalls and her tool belt, because I think that that sends a strong message," Sterling said.

The message is this: engineering isn't just for boys.

Toys are a crucial entry point for kids to get exposure to STEM disciplines, and girls miss out on some of the early playtime experiences necessary to develop those skills, said Yvonne Ng, who heads St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education.

"We're not engaging girls. We're still thinking in very male terms," Ng said.

By the fifth grade, Ng said, many girls have "checked out" of math and science, which they see as a boys' subjects where girls can't succeed. That self-doubt extends to higher education, where girls are more likely to drop out of science- and math-based majors.

"There's this belief that they're not competent, even if their grades say they are," Ng said. "Women don't feel like an engineer. They feel like an impostor."

Sterling, who graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 2005, developed GoldieBlox with help from Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding platform for creative projects. She raised $286,000 — almost twice her goal — in about a month. After her fundraising video went viral on social media, she received about 22,000 online pre-orders for the toy, which brought in money to start production.

The project was inspired by the gender inequity Sterling witnessed firsthand as an engineering student.

"I was one of very few women in the program," she said. "In every class I went into, I was always one of a handful of girls in a room of 80 or 90 people. It's hard being a minority in a male-dominated field."

According to studies by the American Association of University Women, about 87 percent of professional engineers are men.

Sterling hopes GoldieBlox will move that statistic in the favor of women. The toy lands on store shelves next month, but the first 18,000 pre-ordered copies are set to be delivered this week. Already, Sterling has plans to make GoldieBlox into a series and says she's set to launch an interactive digital version for the Apple iPad late this year.

The successes, or failures, of GoldieBlox will be carefully tracked by a Pennsylvania State University professor and graduate student who will spend the next couple of years studying the effect the toy has on girls. Lynn Liben, a distinguished professor of psychology who is leading the research, said that GoldieBlox is one of the few toys that breaks the gender stereotypes reinforced by the toy industry.

"Many toy companies are still marketing to boys versus girls," Liben said. "It tells people that boys and girls are different when it comes to playing or building or getting dirty. That can be problematic because not every kid fits that gender tendency that might be typical."

But two decades after a talking Barbie doll was famously criticized by women's groups for saying "math class is tough," the $21 billion toy industry is showing signs of change. Last month's New York International Toy Fair, one of the largest industry events to showcase new products, featured a handful of girl-focused toys to teach STEM skills. Among them was Nancy B's Science Club, a line of science journals and microscopes, binoculars and telescopes for girls.

Nancy Balter, who led the toy's development for Gardena, Calif.-based company Educational Insights, said parents and grandparents are also losing interest in the old princesses and dolls.

"There is clearly an interest in having daughters grow up to major in not only biology but in engineering and math," she said. "Times have changed in terms of thinking of women doing these things."

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