Helping Girls Flex Their Tech Muscles

Helping Girls Flex Their Tech Muscles

A dollhouse for the digital age promises more challenging entertainment for girls, marking a shift in the gender-based toys and activities.

Three Stanford students created the Roominate dollhouse, to spark the minds of the next generations by giving girls’ time-honored activity a technological upgrade.

Roominate’s creators — Bettina Chen, Alice Brooks and Jennifer Kessler — have since exceeded their initial $25,000 Kickstarter funding goal by more than $50,000 and said they were motivated by their own experience in seeing the number of women in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively called STEM, classes dwindle.

“We realized that our own childhood experiences were integral in attracting us to math and science as adults,” said Chen, explaining the impetus behind the dollhouse construction kits, aimed at girls aged 6 to 10.

The DIY assembly kits include laser-cut wooden parts for walls and furniture along with electronics to bring the parts alive and decoration elements to customize interior design. The spatial elements of the rooms and the modular parts provide endless construction possibilities, and figuring them out is a fun and challenging way to stoke the girls’ STEM skills.

The electronics use single molex connectors, which insulate the wires and connections to protect little fingers from touching any real wires, and the circuits are designed to make shorting the battery impossible.

Roominate’s debut comes on the heels of Lego’s recent offering for girls, which sparked a bit of controversy, illustrating the pitfalls toy makers can face in gender-based activities.

Critics accused Lego of perpetuating “girlie” stereotypes and dumbing down the traditional Lego experience with its female-focused Lego Friends kit, garnering some positive reviews as well as criticism.

The venerable building block company said the project’s goal was to give little girls another option when they reach the “princess phase,” at around four-years-old, the time when boys their age enter their “LEGO-phase.” Many parents applauded this move because Lego play is known to develop spatial, mathematical and fine motor skills, something feathered boas and pink tiaras don’t.

Still, Lego’s decision to use a pink and purple color palette and other traditionally female accents didn’t sit well with many, who said toys should appeal to interests and not necessarily traditional gender characteristics, a controversy Roominate has so far avoided.

“Roominate takes a toy concept that girls already love and adds a design and engineering component that makes them love it even more,” says Kessler.

Toy makers attracting girls as part of a broader audience are part of a bigger trend addressing the deficits of STEM skillsets in girls. These products come at a time when there are more girl gamers than ever, as well as an increase in girls at technology camps, which are developing specific curriculum to get girls involved in STEM programs.

Instead of sending girls to general recreation camps, parents today can send their daughters to one of these emerging camps where she can learn how to become editor of the school’s online literary magazine with newly honed Photoshop skills.

There are courses on graphic design for advertising, camps that combine iPads, Android tablets and traditional art and music activities, and others that blend new technology with hands-on creative activities, bridging the gap between the classroom and the playground.

And these reach across socio-economic borders, too, thanks to programs like the Boys and Girls Clubs “Club Tech” program. Club Tech, which began in 1999 with 15 centers, offers program to about a million disadvantaged students in nearly 2,800 centers in schools, military installations and other locations, thanks to financial support and backing from basketball star Shaquille O’Neil and computer giant Microsoft.

A recent American Association of University Women survey revealed a growing number of girls are turning away from STEM subjects, with only 20 percent of degrees in those fields being earned by women. So, toys and activities like Roominate, as well as technology camps will be valuable in exposing girls to these concepts and stressing their importance as they navigate an increasingly technology-driven world.

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