Girls practice engineering skills with DIY dollhouse kit

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Girls practice engineering skills with DIY dollhouse kit

Roominate toy is brainchild of Stanford engineers Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks

by Susan Rebecca Fisk on Monday, September 16, 2013 - 8:04am

Girl assembling RoominateSabine sat cross-legged on the floor fiddling with a miniature fan to find the "optimal" position so the blade would blow the right amount of air into the dollhouse she was building. She also wanted to add a disco ball. After a few unsuccessful attempts Sabine realized she needed to brace it in the back because the ball was too heavy.

Nope, this is not your average dollhouse. Sabine was building a room with Roominate, the DIY, wired dollhouse kit that encourages girls to build, create, solve problems, and develop confidence in their abilities. The creators of Roominate, both recent MS graduates from Stanford's engineering department, recently held a playdate at the Clayman Institute to introduce the toy to a group of fourth-grade girls.

“Roominate allowed Sabine to combine her mutual love of engineering and creativity, which are linked, but often disconnected in the classroom,” said Sabine’s mother Sigrid Close, assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford.

Girls' toys are less likely than boys' toys to cultivate STEM interest and skills

Childhood play experiences are essential for children to develop spatial skills, problem-solving abilities, and confidence to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, known as "STEM" fields. However, girls’ toys are less likely than boys’ toys to cultivate STEM interest and skills. Studies find that girls’ toys are more likely to focus on enhancing physical attractiveness, domestic skills, and care-taking work than boys’ toys, which generally build spatial awareness and problem solving. As a result, girls are disadvantaged relative to boys when it comes to STEM fields, even before they have thought about their careers.

The creators of Roominate, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, didn’t grow up playing with traditional girl toys. When Brooks asked for a Barbie her father gave her a mini-saw. Chen adored Legos and built hundreds of extravagant creations with her brothers. These experiences, they agree, led them into engineering: Brooks majored in mechanical engineering at MIT, while Bettina studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. When they met as graduate students at Stanford, said Chen, “We thought that there’d be a lot more women in grad school, but there weren’t.” 

“We both had that baseline of confidence because of the things we played with,” said Brooks. “You are going to have to keep adding to that confidence as you get older to deal with things like guys at MIT saying that you got in because you’re a girl.” 

A new kind of toy 

To give girls confidence in STEM, Brooks and Chen created an entirely different type of toy: Roominate. It includes building blocks, walls, and a circuit, which allows children to build furniture, houses, stairs, and even moving fans.  

Alice Brooks and girlBy giving girls confidence in themselves and their know-how, Roominate encourages more women to pursue careers in STEM. “Part of that confidence comes from being exposed to building and circuits,” said Chen. “Boys feel like they’ve played with that and have confidence.”

Research supports the ideas behind Roominate. In an article analyzing inclusive STEM classroom practices, Helena Isabel Scutt, Shannon Katherine Gilmartin, and Sheri Sheppard argue that developing the spatial skills of women is crucial for their success in STEM fields. One study they reviewed found that, “female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatial visualization training are more likely to stay in engineering than are their peers who do not.” 

"What is particularly powerful about... Roominate is that girls are working in 3D to realize their imagination."

But Roominate does more than improve spatial skills. “What is particularly powerful about the approach being taken with Roominate is that girls are working in 3D to realize their imagination,” Sheppard said. And as the creators of Roominate are seeing, this physical realization is sparking experimentation, imagination, creativity, and more building. “I think that they are onto something very important.”

Beyond the pink Lego

Of course, Roominate will achieve its goals only if kids actually play with it. Indeed, many others have failed in their attempts to make ‘boys’ toys’ accessible to girls, which usually focus on taking the boys’ toy and painting it pink. So Brooks and Chen took a different approach: They watched girls play with their toys. They quickly noticed a key trend. “A lot of them had cool dollhouses in their houses... they were quite elaborate, but they were very static,” said Brooks. 

girlSo Brooks and Chen took the idea of the dollhouse and made it customizable, so that little girls (and boys) would develop building, spatial, and problem-solving skills, all while being exposed to circuits. The results? Spectacular.    

Watching children play with Roominate confirms this observation: Kids have fun playing with Roominate and they learn valuable engineering skills too. At the annual Maker’s Faire in San Mateo, CA, the Roominate tent was continually overflowing with both girls and boys. Many parents were forced to drag their children away from the toy. A similar scene occurred at a Roominate play date held at the Clayman Institute.

“I like designing the stuff,” said nine-year old Gracie. Kylie, who is ten, pointed out how, “usually you just have the furniture, you don’t build it.” All of the children echoed the idea that it was more fun to engineer their own model houses and furniture. Nine-year old Camila went even further: “If I could find a store that sells this, I’d buy one for my cousin because they’re really cool.”   

Fear not Camila! Roominate can be purchased at bay area toy stores. It is also available from roominatetoy.com, Amazon, and Brookstone.

Alice Brooks
Co-founder, Roominate

Alice Brooks graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. She received her Masters in Mechanical Engineering Design from Stanford in June 2012. While a student at Stanford, Alice spent six months working at Nest Labs.

Bettina Chen
Co-founder, Roominate

Bettina Chen graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 2010 with a BS in Electrical Engineering. She received her Masters in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in March 2012. Bettina has conducted research on bionic contact lenses and worked as an electrical engineer at Discera and KLA-Tencor.

Susan Rebecca FIsk
PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology

Susan Fisk is part of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team. Fisk is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Stanford University, and she received her BA in Economics and Public Policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.