Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

See It and Be It: Debbie Sterling builds a new story for girls

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Meet Goldie, the girl inventor who loves to build!

These are the words that greet you when you visit the GoldieBlox website. As the mom of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) loving girls, and someone who believes that girls can fall in love with these fields when they’re given opportunities to experience them hands-on, Goldieblox has been on my radar since it was launched.

According to their website, GoldieBlox, Inc. is a toy company founded in 2012 by Debbie Sterling, a female engineer from Stanford University. Engineers are solving some of the biggest challenges our society faces. They are critical to the world economy, earn higher salaries and have greater job security. And they are 89% male. We believe engineers can’t responsibly build our world’s future without the female perspective.

The GoldieBlox team says,

“It’s 2013. It’s about time we opened our girls’ minds beyond the pink aisle at the toy store. It’s time to build a new story so our girls can help build our future.”

My thoughts exactly! And the mission to open up new worlds for girls and get them out of the stereotypical pink box meshes perfectly with the new Brave Girls Alliance mission to give girls a new vision for themselves that transcends stereotypes. I just had to find out more about GoldieBlox and Debbie’s vision.  I asked Debbie if I could interview her and find out more about her own background, how she came to be an engineer and found GoldieBlox, and what her hopes for girls are. Here’s what Debbie shared with me.

First, I asked Debbie the questions,  what got you interested in engineering? What age were you when you began to be interested in things that lead you to the field?

I first heard the word, “engineering” when I was a senior in high school. I was applying to colleges and asked my math teacher to write my recommendation letter. She asked me what I planned to major in so she could include it in the letter, but I didn’t know. “How about engineering?” she asked. “I think you would excel in it.” I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what engineering was. I pictured an old man driving a train! Nevertheless, I went off to Stanford the following year and couldn’t decide what to major in…so I decided to give engineering a try. I just couldn’t forget her words of advice. I signed up for “Mechanical Engineering 101”. The class was a blast. We were inventing things, building machines, tinkering, playing, working in teams. I instantly declared engineering as my major and the rest is history.

When you were growing up, can you remember certain people who did things that encouraged your interest in engineering, creating, building, etc? Were there those who discouraged your interest, or told you that what you liked doing was “for boys?”

My dad is an engineer. Growing up, we used to build structures out of sugar packets whenever we’d go out to eat at restaurants. It drove the waiters and waitresses crazy! This was probably my first introduction to engineering. Other than that, I don’t remember being exposed to engineering at all as a child. This is why I am creating GoldieBlox — to offer girls the toy I wish I’d had growing up.

Speaking of that, tell me about GoldieBlox, what gave you the idea to create the toy(s) and company?

GoldieBlox is a book series + construction set combined starring Goldie, the girl inventor who loves to build. As kids read along, they get to build what Goldie builds using wheels, axles, ribbons, pegboards, etc. to construct simple machines.

I came up with the idea one day when I was talking with my friend, Christy, another female engineer. She was complaining about the lack of women in engineering and argued that she fell in love with engineering when she was a little girl because she played with her brothers’ hand-me-down Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and Legos. I dawned on me that those construction toys are really great at teaching kids about engineering and getting them interested in science and math…yet they are marketed to boys! From that moment, I decided I would create an engineering toy specifically designed to appeal to girls. That’s how GoldieBlox was born.

Encouraging girls to learn and grow in the STEM areas is a huge interest to me. As the mother of three daughters, I would love for them to see STEM careers as open to them. What got you interested in reaching out to young girls?

As a female engineer, I feel it is my duty to be a role model for young girls, and inspire them to find a passion for engineering the way my math teacher in high school inspired me. Engineering changed my life and opened so many doors for me. I want every girl to have the same opportunity.

I asked Debbie, from her perspective as a female engineer, what does she think are the barriers to girls and women pursuing engineering careers?

Our culture is an enormous barrier — we live in a land of princesses, tiaras, dress-up dolls and pop stars for girls, and building toys, chemistry kits and brain-teasers for boys. Bob the Builder, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Handy Manny, Jimmy Neutron — these are all math and science role models for kids…and they are all male. We need to provide characters, toys, games and experiences for girls that show them STEM is for girls too.

What are your goals for GoldieBlox? How do you hope that it influences girls?

I hope Goldie Blox becomes a popular character like “Dora the Explorer” or “Bob the Builder”, and becomes a role model for girls everywhere who makes engineering cool and accessible to them.

I shared with Debbie that as the mom of a high school girl who loves the STEM fields, I’ve seen first hand how both peers and teachers have discouraged my daughter from her interests.

I asked Debbie, “What would you say to girls who are interested in STEM fields? Any special thoughts for those who may have been told that what they like isn’t “for girls” or that they’re weird for being interested in computer science, engineering, physics, or math?”

I would tell them to stick with it! Over the years, I’ve faced a lot of the same hardships. Often, I was one of the only girls in my engineering classes. Many times, I felt like I didn’t belong. But you can’t let that get you down. An education and career in a STEM field is incredibly powerful — you can change the world! It’s not going to be easy, but when you stick with it, the reward will be all the greater. You will have the confidence to know you can do ANYTHING.

What would you say to parents and teachers about things that they can do to encourage girls’ interest in STEM areas?

I read an article recently about “math anxiety” — how many girls suffer from it and it is passed down from their parents and female teachers! The common saying “I’m just not good at math” rubs off on girls. My suggestion to parents is to have an open mind toward STEM and be willing to learn about it with your kids.

Speaking of engineers, I bet that a lot of our readers don’t know what engineering is all about any more than  you did as a high school seniors! What does your day to day work look like as an engineer?

I spend a lot of time sketching ideas in my notebook and making rough prototypes out of simple materials like paper and wood. I am constantly testing my ideas with kids, watching them play with prototypes and the GoldieBlox toys to see how they can be improved. I also work with factory engineers on difficult engineering problems, like how to make the holes in the pieces the perfect size so that everything fits properly.

Any last words or thoughts that you would like to share with my readers, either children or their parents/teachers?

Little things can make such a huge difference in people’s lives. The one comment one day from my math teacher in high school about how I should major in engineering literally changed my life. You never know what these triggers might be; but I certainly hope that GoldieBlox will be a spark for some little girls out there to try something new. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they create.

I’m so excited about Debbie’s company, and her willingness to share her passion for engineering with girls. She inspires me, and I can’t wait to share her story with my own science and math loving daughters!

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